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When Less is More: Shifting Risk Management in American Childbirth

Reproduction, Health, and Medicine

ISBN: 978-1-78756-172-4, eISBN: 978-1-78756-171-7

Publication date: 22 November 2019


As maternal mortality increases in the United States, birth providers and policymakers are seeking new solutions to address what scholars have called the “C-section epidemic.” Hospital cesarean rates vary tremendously, from 7 to 70 percent of all births. Based on in-depth, semi-structured interviews with 47 obstetricians and family physicians in the United States, I explore one reason for this variation: differences in how physicians perceive and manage risk in American obstetrics. While the dominant model of risk management encourages high levels of intervention and monitoring, I argue that a significant portion of physicians are concerned about high intervention rates in childbirth and are working to reduce cesarean rates and/or the use of monitoring technologies like continuous fetal heart rate monitors. Unlike prior theories of biomedicalization, which suggest that health risks are managed through increased monitoring and intervention, I find that many physicians are resisting this model of risk management by ordering fewer interventions and collecting less information about their patients. These providers acknowledge that interventions designed to mitigate risks may only provide an illusion of control, rather than an actual mastery of risks. By limiting interventions, providers may lose this illusion of control but also mitigate the iatrogenic effects of intervention and continuous monitoring. This alternative approach to risk management is growing in many medical fields and deserves more attention from medical sociologists.




I am grateful to Steven Epstein, Carol Heimer, and Wendy Espeland for their helpful comments on early versions of this chapter. Thank you, also, to my colleagues in the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania for their support and feedback on my work.


Owens, K. (2019), "When Less is More: Shifting Risk Management in American Childbirth", Reproduction, Health, and Medicine (Advances in Medical Sociology, Vol. 20), Emerald Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 45-62.



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