Too Much of a Good Thing? American Childbirth, Intentional Ignorance, and the Boundaries of Responsible Knowledge

Owens, Kellie
Science, Technology, & Human Values

In biomedicine, practitioners often treat risk of disease as an illness in itself?suitable for monitoring and intervention. In some cases, increased diagnostics improve health outcomes by detecting problems early. Recently, however, science and technology studies scholars and medical practitioners have noted that the treatment of risk can also lead to unnecessary intervention and possible harm. Despite these findings, it is often hard to see changes in practice. Childbirth serves as an illuminating case because two models of health risk operate simultaneously?in addition to the model valuing frequent intervention, there is another that seeks to mitigate risk by refusing medical surveillance. Based on interviews with birth providers and an analysis of professional documents, this article uses the case of fetal heart rate monitoring in American childbirth to demonstrate how some health providers are framing ?intentional non-knowing? as a moral imperative to reduce medical risk. Studying the success and limitations of this ?risk counterculture? illuminates how risk societies are changing in response to data suggesting that more information can have hurtful effects. This case integrates well-developed theories of knowledge production with less-developed theories of knowledge nonproduction, leading to a more fruitful discussion of the boundaries of responsible knowledge in risk management.