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Burning bridges: policy, practice, and the destruction of midwifery in rural Costa Rica


  • Jenkins, Gwynne L.


The trend toward hospitalization of birth has a long history in Costa Rica and currently approximately 98% of births take place in the clinical setting. Impoverished rural areas, like the town of Buenos Aires, lag behind national trends and only recently has birth moved from the home to the hospital. Costa Rica's midwife certification program co-opted rural midwives as bridges to biomedicalization, responsible for both pushing women into the biomedical setting and filling the gaps left by a limited national health care system. Despite the eventual illegalization of key practices and of home birth itself, local use of midwives' services continues, albeit with local demands that have transformed midwives into bridges to biomedical care in ways unanticipated by and invisible to national programmers. Midwives provide key services like prenatal massage, treatment of pregnancy crises, and attending unforeseen home births and women unable to afford the modest costs of hospitalization. Yet, midwives report increasing dissatisfaction and the desire to stop providing services in their communities. Practices like prenatal massage are in demand, but are no longer embedded in a system of local exchange that is socially and economically meaningful. Midwives blame their clientele for their dissatisfaction, but directly link these changes to the notions of professionalism, compensation, and changing community values. Thus, the social relationship between midwives and their clients must also be understood as a destructive force burning midwifery as a bridge to safe birth. In this essay, I argue that the process of both remodeling and subsequently destroying midwifery practices begun in the formal health care sector at the national level continues at the local level through changing values and meanings associated with midwives' practices.

Suggested Citation

  • Jenkins, Gwynne L., 2003. "Burning bridges: policy, practice, and the destruction of midwifery in rural Costa Rica," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 56(9), pages 1893-1909, May.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:socmed:v:56:y:2003:i:9:p:1893-1909

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    Cited by:

    1. repec:eee:socmed:v:196:y:2018:i:c:p:233-239 is not listed on IDEAS
    2. Giacaman, Rita & Wick, Laura & Abdul-Rahim, Hanan & Wick, Livia, 2005. "The politics of childbirth in the context of conflict: policies or de facto practices?," Health Policy, Elsevier, vol. 72(2), pages 129-139, May.
    3. El-Nemer, Amina & Downe, Soo & Small, Neil, 2006. "'She would help me from the heart': An ethnography of Egyptian women in labour," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 62(1), pages 81-92, January.


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