Birth pains: changing understandings of miscarriage, stillbirth and neonatal death in Australia in the Twentieth Century

Susannah Thompson

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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Feminist and social historians have long been interested in that particularly female ability to become pregnant and bear children. A significant body of historiography has challenged the notion that pregnancy and childbirth considered to be the acceptable and 'appropriate' roles for women for most of the twentieth century in Australia - have always been welcomed, rewarding and always fulfilling events in women's lives. Several historians have also begun the process of enlarging our knowledge of the changing cultural attitudes towards bereavement in Australia and the eschewing of the public expression of sorrow following the two World Wars; a significant contribution to scholarship which underscores the changing attitudes towards perinatal loss. It is estimated that one in four women lose a pregnancy to miscarriage, and two in one hundred late pregnancies result in stillbirth in contemporary Australia. Miscarriage, stillbirth and neonatal death are today considered by psychologists and social workers, amongst others, as potentially significant events in many women's lives, yet have received little or passing attention in historical scholarship concerned with pregnancy and motherhood. As such, this study focuses on pregnancy loss: the meaning it has been given by various groups at different times in Australia's past, and how some Australian women have made sense of their own experience of miscarriage, stillbirth or neonatal death within particular social and historical contexts. Pregnancy loss has been understood in a range of ways by different groups over the past 100 years. At the beginning of the twentieth century, when alarm was mounting over the declining birth rate, pregnancy loss was termed 'foetal wastage' by eugenicists and medical practitioners, and was seen in abstract terms as the loss of necessary future Australian citizens. By the 1970s, however, with the advent of support groups such as SANDS (Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Support) miscarriage and stillbirth were increasingly seen as the devastating loss of an individual baby, while the mother was seen as someone in need of emotional and other support. With the advent of new prenatal screening technologies in the late twentieth century, there has been a return of the idea of maternal responsibility for producing a 'successful' outcome. This project seeks to critically examines the wide range of socially constructed meanings of pregnancy loss and interrogate the arguments of those groups, such as the medical profession, religious and support groups, participating in these constructions. It will build on existing histories of motherhood, childbirth and pregnancy in Australia and, therefore, also the history of Australian women.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Publication statusUnpublished - 2008


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