Every year, the Penn Museum provides support to Penn undergraduates and graduate students as they deepen their understanding of the human experience outside the Museum’s walls. Follow these blog posts from our intrepid young scholars as they report on the sights and sites that they encounter throughout their travels in the field.
Jining, Shandong, China
July 11, 2015
One of the most exciting things about having a topic I am passionate about researching is that I get to network with academics and professionals who are interested in the same issues. Before coming to China, I read up on all the literature possible on cesarean deliveries and C-sections on maternal request, and had contacted both Chinese and American researchers, who responded and gave me further contacts and resources to pursue while in China. It was through these efforts I was connected with Mavis, the founder of a Chinese doula-training and post-partum recovery company, through an international organization called Midwifery Today. (Note: doulas are trained personnel who support women before, during, and after delivery). One thing led to another and Mavis later invited me to come to Jining, a (relatively) small city in Shandong province for a “forum”/”discussion” with doctors, midwives, and nurses. I had presumed, from what she had told me, that it would be an informal meeting of Canadian and Chinese doctors and midwives, but little did I know that it was actually quite a well-organized affair involving a hotel conference room, name tags, and lots of photographers. Furthermore, the group of expert “Canadian doctors” turned out to be just one Scottish-Canadian professor of midwifery, Professor Edith Hillan, who is currently the Vice Provost of the University of Toronto and previously a professor of midwifery at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. It just so happened that she was in China vacationing and accompanying her husband for his own conference keynote in electrical engineering. As she was interested in the issue of childbirth in China, she also connected with Mavis, hoping to perhaps visit a hospital and talk with doctors or midwives while her husband was doing his own academic work. However, also to her surprise, that “casual” visit turned out to be a formal symposium with many doctors and midwives from provincial hospitals in attendance.
I think what was exciting for me was that I had, in fact, come across Professor Hillan’s name in the literature on post-operative morbidity for cesarean deliveries—and it was just by pure chance we were brought together for the same purpose. Therefore, it was quite exciting to hear her speak in a Chinese context, especially because it is so different from that of the UK (or the US). It was also lovely to be able to converse in English with her about these issues. The big takeaway from her lecture, which was about the need for midwifery care all over the world as well as the rising rates of cesarean sections, was that particularly in the UK, maternity care serves the woman, putting her needs and that of her infant at the center both in and out of the hospital. From my point of view, this is not the case in China. “Midwives” in China are simply nurses who develop skills to work in the delivery room only after interning there for a year or two. Maternal-child care revolves entirely around the hospital’s and doctors’ authorities—a biomedical hegemony, perhaps. This means that women experience labor and deliver lying down, and are subject to more cesarean deliveries and episiotomies—unlike in the UK where midwives lead low-risk births usually without much intervention. Moreover, women in the UK are educated about the care they receive and have the ability to make choices about their childbirth experience, unlike in China where many women do not receive childbirth education, have no birth plan, and follow doctor’s orders. I think that this, in turn, leads to a fear of pain and childbirth, and eventually perhaps to the refuge of a surgeon’s knife during their labor. It is clear that while China’s maternal-child health indicators have improved dramatically by moving birth into the medical realm, there is still a large deficit in trying to make that childbirth experience humanized and empowering for women. Now, Mavis and her company are trying to change that culture, particularly by working to increase partnerships with hospitals to increase the number of doulas—but a lot remains to be done, especially in getting women much-needed community care outside of the hospital, for which I think the UK can serve as a model.
Overall, this conference was quite a wonderful experience, complementing my fieldwork and interviews, and I loved being able to learn from other perspectives as well as share my own. After all, this is the power of cross-cultural research and exchange, where we cross-pollinate ideas and values to continually improve society. The moral of the story is, don’t be afraid to network and reach out to other people—the world of academia actually gets quite small, especially within a discipline or field of practice and even more so in foreign countries. It definitely proved fruitful for me.