The medicalization of women's body
by Franca Pizzini



1. The social construction of the body

The body as a sociological category has drawn the attention of scholars only recently. The study of physicalness has traditionally been delegated to other disciplines, such as for example medicine, and even classical sociology has delimitated its own borders through "the determined negation of the importance of genetic and physical factors in social life, (…) reinforcing and contributing at the same time to the theorization of the opposition which is typical of western thought, between nature and culture" (Borgna, 1995).
This recent interest has led to the development of the hypothesis that the most significant component of the individual, the basis of his identity and individuality, is not only constituted by the brain-mind system (and, given the current emphasis on genetics, it is perhaps worth underlining that it is not even constituted by the genetic complement only) but rather by the entire body, with its spatiality, its motility, its capacity to feel and act.
The theory of social action, which takes inspiration from this perspective, maintains that "for the aims of action, the difference is whether the acting individual is a woman or a man, more or less young, has children or not and so on" (ibidem). This means starting from the awareness that the body is the fruit of the mixture of the biological and the social dimension. On the one hand we can say that body realities acquire a meaning and identity depending on the cultural context in which they are inserted, that is culture provides names and identities to the body; on the other hand there exists a kind of relationship highlighted by socio-biology, which studies the interaction, in the human being, of nature and education, of biology and culture, and according to which socio-cultural behaviour, though structured by the environment, has a strong biological component, that is the environment is "incorporated".
The biological body has often been considered a simple material sub-stratum, an invariant factor where individual identity is incarnated, variable and rich, the fruit of complex psychological constructions which make everyone's biography unique. But it is indeed biology, a discipline that given its rapid and unexpected developments acquires a growing importance in the public opinion of post-industrial societies, which teaches us that there are not perfectly identical biological organisms. On the contrary, Darwin demonstrated that the variability of individuals is an unavoidable factor in the evolution of the species. Thus, if we can ascertain that every single biological body is different, all the more we can say this of the body as a sociological category, that is when we do not refer to the body as an object of the world, but as something which allows us to act in the world. Where what acts is not merely our body but it us ourselves; where our body image expresses the style and the sense of our personal history; where, finally, the construction of the body image does not only depend on the individual history, but also on the incidence of the social element. This image, in fact, is acquired through the process of children's socialization, through which we acquire our own way to conceive our body, a way to communicate, to consider social and familial relationships. As a consequence, the body as a social construction, with its continuous reference to a vivacious dialectics of identity and difference, presents itself as a set of potential sociological signs and indicators, which we need to decipher in order to understand dynamics, structures, events, transformations and underlying conflicts.
As human beings we have a body: we are "cultural animals" in the sense that the expressions of our being cultural are "embodied". This directly influences the way in which things become significant for us, the way in which these meanings develop and are articulated, our capacity of understanding and reasoning of the experience and thus our actions. This is what is maintained by some sectors of the sciences of cognitive processes, within which it is strongly believed that the essence of knowledge is in the first instance incarnated, embodied, lived. Anthropological, linguistic, psychological and sociological research more and more often sustains a conception of the thought as "embodied"; from this it derives that the nucleus of our conceptual system is strictly rooted in perception, in the movement of the body, and in its experience of a physical and social character.
Experiences are embodied and the body is modelled by experience. It ensues that reading the other's body is a way to be in contact with the whole cultural universe where that body is immersed and by which it is moulded. The above mentioned perspective has characterised most of the research on gender difference: the central dimension of the difference inscribed in the body of the woman is the possibility to generate, a dimension which has historically required social control over women's body, assumed by religion first and by medicine later.



2. The social control over the body

The medicalization of women's body is the answer of modernity to the need for social control over the reproductive activity of the woman, a very strong need, which is a constant in all cultures, as it is well demonstrated by several anthropological studies (Davis Floyd, 1997; Jordan, 1985). Such control is part of those "modes transmitted by tradition in order to cope with nature and its events and of fundaments of the differentiation between societies, just because, by inscribing culture in the body, they make of it the most natural and taken for granted there could be" (Mauss, 1980). Thus, referring to the social construction of the body, which acts in different ways according to the culture to which it belongs, to the social class, to the sexual gender, we can once more argue that the chosen place of collective identity is women's body. "If symbolically women's body triumphs in the arts and in representations of power, it concretely becomes the space where society most exercises its power of coercion and control" (Diasio, 1998).
In pre-modern societies such control was exercised by religion, so as every way to cope with nature was linked to the sacred: from the relationship with the earth and plants to the relationship with the body. Its medicalization and that of society thus go hand in hand with modernity, but this is not a linear process, rather a complex one, full of successes and failures which combine in different ways. Let's think of how religion and medicine have combined in Italy with respect to Catholic culture or of how they combine in other Mediterranean countries with respect to the Muslim culture (the debate on the mutilation of women's genitals, now topical in Europe due to immigration, is here interesting to consider) (ibidem; Zappala and Schmidt, 1998).
Thus the question we need to ask ourselves is whether, for a post-modern and de-sacred society such as ours, anthropologists' idea that social control on women's body is an important constant for all cultures is still valid, and to what extent medicine and technology offer new instruments to the community to operate such control, in a new way, in an epoch of trans-human and virtual bodies (the "trans-human" being defined by the passage to a new human condition accomplished thanks to the use of neuroscience, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, technological clutches, biotechnology and telecommunications).



3. Women's bodies and technology

The analysis of the historical process which has seen in the modern epoch in Western society a new definition of the body has developed from the theme of procreation and of the body of women by the women's movement.
Our aim as researchers, linked to such movement, was to put at the centre of our reflection women's body, health, maternity, claiming a physicalness and a subjectivity that has shaped our identity.
But we ask ourselves whether it is still possible to proceed along this way, in a situation where the perception of the body has changed, thanks to new technologies, be they those set up by bioengineering or those of telecommunications, or else those of medicine, which provides alternative prostheses for every part of the body, be it vital or not.
From our research the following further questions arise: "Is the new technological universe nowadays able to put under discussion generativity and its bodily bases? Which perspectives of technological bodies are emerging in the contemporary scenario? Is it only the First World which experiences these problems and to what extent are they linked to those of the Third World? To what extent a thought of gender, built on the awareness of its own embodied character, can contribute in a determining way to the understanding of this scenario?
It is difficult to answer these questions because the achievements of biology and medicine progress much quicker than the ethical and sociological reflection they trigger. We can however already ascertain that the centrality of the bodily basis of generativity is continuously shaken by the availability of new technologies which erode the exclusive power of women in this field. Let's think about the historical analysis carried out by Barbara Duden (1994), who describes how technology with its innovative instances is a reason for cultural change and is able to intervene upon the body reality giving it new meanings, values and symbologies.
The body of the woman has become public due to the scientific and technological evolution which has allowed to overcome borders until now insurmountable, first of all the visible one.
It has gradually been possible to penetrate the body in order to see what's happening inside it, making the magic and mysterious aura until then linked to the most profound body events - first of all maternity - disappear.
Duden thinks back to the history of the body in order to understand how concepts unknown until not long ago, such as the value of the foetus and the more general concept of life, have emerged.
What characterised the relationship with the body was a perception of a synaesthetic and tactile kind, very different from the one which imposed in a contemporary era.
With this, the extension of the medical practice to delivery and to the new scientific techniques, and a perception of the body in a visual and conceptual kind, (or to use a simpler image, a slightly noticeable perception) had imposed (Duden, 1994, pp. 105-106).
With the advent of photography, with the development of communication media and the new scientific techniques, the image acquires a force never seen before: the force to create a concept, a reality.
According to Duden, until the 1970s a certain limit was respected, what could be seen to the naked eye was scrutinized and reproduced; it is with the new techniques and with the importance gained by the image and the mass media during the 1990s that this creative force of values and concepts becomes more impressive and convincing.
An even more decisive step in this direction is the attempt to replace the uterus itself with an artificial womb. The dream of ectogenesis, that is of a completely extra bodily pregnancy, recently emphasised by the media, marginalizes women's corporeity. This does not prevent a minority of the women's movement (Haraway, 1995) from giving a positive evaluation of the technological invasion and/or substitution of the body of the woman, which would be thus subtracted from social duties once inescapable.
Donna Haraway introduces a new elaboration of the relationship between the body and the machine, which allows to overcome old divisions and identifications, both in relation to gender and to other dimensions. From the constructive encounter between body and machine the cyborg myth is born:
"cyborg is a word composed of cyberg and organism: it means cybernetic organism and indicates a mix of flesh and technology which characterises the body modified by clutches of hardware, prostheses and other devices". (Haraway, 1995, p.11)
In this way the search for identities is replaced by a search for affinities, which overcome the phase that took us to look for an "us" to be defined and defended, in order to open unknown opportunities for communication.
According to Haraway the various critiques to the political system and scientific culture, including the feminist ones, still lie on the idea of hierarchical dichotomies which since Aristotle have characterised western thought. In other words, it is a nonsense to think of our condition in dichotomic terms, we need to reconstruct a world of relationships without identities, we need to propose a new vision of the self, and the cyborg is the self that needs be elaborated.
"Communication technologies and biotechnologies are the main instruments to reconstruct our bodies. These instruments incorporate and impose new social relationships for women all over the world." The author here replaces a dichotomic vision with an image which is "ideological and reticular, which suggests the profusion of spaces and identities and the permeability of borders in the personal and in the political body" (ibidem, p.68).

With reference to the relationship woman-technology, Rosy Braidotti (1994, 1996) maintains that "we need to realise that this dimension belongs to us as a true skin and that starting from its implosion it is perhaps possible to draw different perspectives, by creatively contributing from within to the invention of new universes of signification, of other symbolic orders where technology is not an instrument of power but of satisfaction of needs".
This is the latest frontier of the so-called cyber-feminism which even takes the image of the cyborg as the emblem of a definite overcoming of the masculine/feminine dichotomy besides of any minor identity, alternative to classical rationality. The relationship man-machine thus serves to unveil the presumed neutrality of human nature and, as a consequence, also to overcome a thought of difference which is still too tied to the influences of the biological. A third gender is thus candidate as a meeting point between traditional sexes. Signs of all this are the triumph of the androgyne in our medial culture, or the claiming of forms of transexualism and overcoming of sexual stereotypes.
The tendency to devalue body experience is also emphasised by the expansion of the use of telecommunications (and the Internet in particular). Network connection, now possible in most of the globe (and yet not everywhere!) allows for distance communication in real time which leaves aside the physical relationship with the people we address. An experience of material absence of the body, a real disincarnation which puts men and women on a par.
As far as we are concerned, we believe that this absence of bodies and the consequent cancellation of differences is yet a limited experience. On the contrary there is, on the one hand, a permanence of the physical memory of experience of the previous generations which emerges at an unconscious level even in those who have an extreme relationship with technology. On the other hand, the comparison with different ethnical groups puts under discussion the course so far accomplished by feminist reflection. It is enough to cast our eye on the countries of the South of the world in order to realise that cultural and socio-economic differences profoundly influence the perception of the corporeity and a reflection on it. Before a corporeity which is marginalised as a consequence of the affirmation of new technologies there exist a corporeity and a generativity still dramatically on the forefront in countries where the experience of maternity is central in women's life, and where demographic growth impacts upon entire continents.



4. Gender and culture differences

We believe that no attempt to answer our queries is satisfactory if we do not start from an international point of view, which links and connects the excess of women's medicalization in rich countries with the lack of cure of those living in poor countries.
Even though world population grows less quickly than was pessimistically estimated in past years, birth rates in poor countries are still much higher than in industrialised countries, and so are health problems related to maternity. Just remember that 20 million illegal abortions are carried out every year in the world and that 90% of them are carried out in the Southern part of the world, with imaginable consequences, such as sterility, which is increasing due to infections deriving from poor conditions in which deliveries are carried out, abortions and genital mutilations. As far as AIDS is concerned, in some African countries, 70% of young women are HIV positive (UN Fund for the Population, 1998).

The comparison between data emerging from such different realities is as useful as ever, in that it serves to discredit the idea that in LDCs a something similar is occurring to what we have already experienced - though years later. This in fact does not correspond to the truth as in these countries there is a strong influence of western medical thought which allows for the paradoxical co-presence of serious public health problems and of hyper-technological medicine. The most evident example of this is Brazil (and yet similar situations can also be found in other southern countries and in the far east), where delivery mortality reaches peaks similar to those experienced in Europe after the Second World War and where abortion is the second cause of death for women. Despite these problems, clinics for reproductive technologies are established (Pizzini, 1997a).
The intensive manipulation of bodies, which is made possible by biomedical technology, influences relationships between different ethnical groups in another way as well: the possibility (either legalised or not) to transfer gametes and embryos makes it possible to be in the presence of the phenomenon of commercialization of these special parts of the body. Let uteruses and ovum trading are the order of the day in poor countries where women are at the service of a medical and technological apparatus which aims to satisfy the desire of maternity of wealthy couples who consult centres specialised in reproductive technologies.
Other differences which are profoundly inscribed in corporeity are still evident if we only cast our eye on the various dimensions of the same topic. Thus another question adds up to those we have already asked: to what extent can a thought of gender, built on the awareness of its own embodied character, contribute to the understanding of this scenario?
Women's thought, originated in Italy from the women's movement of the 1970s, has of course provided important contributions to the topic of difference, in that it has focused on corporeity, sexuality, the private aspect of life, seen as a political moment in human experience. The theoretical point that links the topic of gender difference to that of culture difference is the connection between productive and reproductive labour. This is especially highlighted by those who work in actual situations of economic and social "underdevelopment" where it has been necessary to re-think both theory and "development" projects. "The participation of women in the matter of development meant that we had to try and understand what it meant to give weight to productive and reproductive labour, and the kind of theoretical and practical difficulties experienced in thinking about this connection. (…) Starting from the stake of this connection, we need to re-categorise the social in relation with the economic. The impossibility to think about women's work as comprehending all that complex of activities where free and valuable, productive and reproductive appear united, testifies the scope and difficulty of such operations" (Melchiori, 1994, p.19).

Connecting gender differences to culture difference is particularly interesting if we focus on the topic of the body. In
Man and Woman (?) Margaret Mead recalls how difficult it is to analyse this matter: "Our body is a complex and difficult subject to deal with" and even more complex is "to explain more clearly how the knowledge of our gender and the relationship with the other sex are based on differences and similarities in human bodies" (Mead, 1991, p.14).
In order to clearly understand how our bodies have learned to be male or female during their lives, the American anthropologist examines the seven cultures of the south seas she has studied for a quarter of a century. Hence, a confrontation between "primitive" cultures, in relation with complex cultures, such as the American culture between the two wars. Following the phases through which their children learn they belong to a gender, we can detect a few elements which illustrate the process through which we understand we are males or females, and a few suggestions of how we have reached the knowledge of our sex. Thus Margaret Mead, in a part of her book, entitled "the body" already identifies the latter as an element of knowledge on the border of gender and culture.
More or less during the same years when she was carrying out her research on male and female social construction (see also Mead, 1967), Gregory Bateson was studying a disguising ritual in New Guinea, the Naven.
"A ritual of collective disguise aimed at celebrating the first culturally significant action of a child, or of a youth, which thus marks his admission into ordinary life and into the universe of ordinary relations" (Bateson, 1988, introduction). The hypothesis put forward by the two anthropologists, who met while studying the Iatmul of New Guinea and who meanwhile got married, is that every social group imposes upon those belonging to it a series of compulsory emotional attitudes and a series of behaviours which start from the definitions of male and female, even though analysed in a ritual moment of transvestitism. It is evident that this process of socialisation of affection is for Bateson the progressive differentiation, from infancy onward, of the male and female ethos: "This language, made of both explicit gestures and hidden allusions, derives in its turn - and on this point both Bateson and Mead agree - from a dynamic process of differentiation of social groups, through which men learn to keep different from women and the latter to avoid inclinations - both physical and psychic - which fall on men". Bateson proposes to call this process schismogenesi ("birth of separation") (ibidem, p. 27).
By describing the Naven, Bateson is the first anthropologist who poses the problem of the relationship between observer and observed. It is not a case that, starting from the overturning of sexual roles, and thus from their social norm, the point of view is thematized by the observer as a preliminary reflection.
"The constitution itself of the object, not only of social anthropology, but of all possible theory of human behaviour, depends on the relationship between the observer and the observed" (ibidem, p. 19). Such relationship, as any other, is comprehensive of verbal and non verbal behaviours, and thus, we can add, we cannot neglect the body, the gender and the identity of the two subjects.
This leads us to stress how the thought is embodied also from the point of view of the researcher and how every research requires somehow a recognition, even if not explicitly declared, of the body identity of those who have carried it out. In our case, such identity has been made explicit, for long investigated and recognised as a strong point from which to start (Pizzini and Bossi, 1994).



5. The medicalization of women's body

This paper synthetizes a course of research which has lasted long years, and refers to the topic of the medicalization of women's body, summarised in my book Corpo medico e corpo femminile (Pizzini, 1999), where I investigate three fundamental steps in such process: birth delivery, artificial reproduction, menopause. On the first two topics I had already published several books and articles (Pizzini, 1981; Colombo, Pizzini, Regalia, 1984, 1987; Pizzini, 1985, 1986, 1988, 1991, 1992; Pizzini and Lombardi, 1994, 1997; Pizzini, 1997b) which I have resumed and updated in order to appreciate their meaning and insert them into a historical perspective which is now necessary.
As far as the last topic is concerned, the reflection on menopause is totally unprecedented, but takes us to conclude a course of research which intersecates with a subjective route.
In the book, the methodology remains the same: different definitions of the same topic are compared, in particular medical and sociological literature, by privileging authors who have a gender point of view, and have contributed to form an authoritative women's thought on these subjects. Of such writings I especially consider epidemiological analyses, in terms of costs and benefits, without forgetting the comparison with countries that have different cultures from ours.

Aware of the deep influence exercised on our conception of the body by the passage from an organic pre-modern vision to one which is mechanic and modern, we can date the beginning of the history of medicalization of women's body back to the XVIII century, when the doctor makes his appearance next to the obstetrician on the birth delivery scene. During the XIX century human reproduction has then become the exclusive domain of medical intervention, through the long process of medicalization of the procreative event from pregnancy to birth. The movement of such an event into the hospital took place gradually and was contemporary to the passage from the female-dominated world of obstetricians to the male-dominated world of doctors. The everyday experience of human reproduction is in women's hands, but its practice and control are in the hands of medicine, as a privileged area for a professional élite characterised by a strong male presence. Women's experience itself of maternity, sexuality, and pregnancy is modelled by the medical definitions in a demand-supply dialectics which is still present.
Such a process started in the XVIII century with the use of forceps by doctors and the scholarization of midwives who became obstetricians, proceeding then in different forms and modalities according to the different areas of the industrialised world (for example, in European and North American countries) up to, during this century, some fundamental steps, such as contraception and reproductive technologies, which have definitely separated sexuality from procreation.
In this process, the prevailing and culturally most important activity is the visual one: medicine in the 1900s has been defined as "voyeuristic" (Oakley, 1984), since the importance of techniques such as X ray and echography is evident, which have made the activity of looking at parts of the body on a screen rather than touching and auscultate the body itself important.
The prodromes of this new mentality are to be found in the first dissections of corpses carried out with the aim to penetrate the internal secrets of the body. These practices and anatomical studies were extended to the female uterus in the attempt to represent its secrets, but until the mediator was the artist, there was no relevant change, which on the contrary occurred with the invention of photography: with the development of communication and the new scientific techniques, the image acquires a new social force, which determines the definition of reality itself and what can be instrumentally recorded, photographed or projected on a screen is more "real".
When the reproductive process was viewed and understood in such a good way as to make us able to modify it, there was in our century a decisive passage which refers to the possibility to intervene in the process itself, right at its root. We thus do not only intervene in pregnancy, menstruation, menopause, but in the procreation itself, thus touching a complex mixture of problems of a social, ethical, scientific, economic, legislative nature.
Such techniques represent the most striking aspect, in terms of rapidity, of the complexity of changes, of consequences on the collective imaginary in relation to sexuality and reproduction. As a matter of fact, it is the first time in the history of humanity that the mother is no longer "una et semper certa", but her functions can be shared with different women. Some talk now of a "deflagrated maternity", divided among ovum donor, pregnancy bearer and social mother, tasks that can be carried out by different women.
In relation to the theme of the body and gender differences, the reflection on reproductive technlogies is paradigmatic and it takes us from the history of medicalization towards the future of mankind connecting elements which looked so far disjointed: different technologies, different places of the world, different relationships between genders and cultures. There is a widespread idea that science and technology with their forefront intervention on the body, with the cybernetic studies and reproductive technologies will allow for the overcoming of old dichotomies and the liberation of the body from historical inferiority in relation to the mind, thus opening a new and unprecedented relationship between nature and culture.
I have already explained in two books (Pizzini, 1992; Pizzini, Lombardi, 1994) my position which places the theme of reproductive technologies within an ecological perspective, in which the "conscience of limit" prevails, where well being and health in the future is not separated from nature, but rather redefined in a new way starting from the body and the respect of differences and of sustainable world development.
The new frontiers of procreation, from conception to the end of reproductive capacities show how medical answers are given to social and psychological demands, which concern the quality of life itself:

  • women seem to require a constant medical intervention during pregnancy, which in some countries such as Italy has now become unique, aimed at only producing one child;
  • compared to reproductive technologies, there emerge in couples who recur to them expectations of miraculous solutions despite very low percentages of success (90% of women who engage in reproductive technologies are unsuccessful);
  • as far as menopause is concerned, there is in women the expectation to solve every problem of ageing through the assumption of hormones.
Women adhere to the medical supply when they are unable to clarify their own demand, placing themselves in a weak position. The answer that medicalizes is an atomised reply, unique and non collective, which pervades the whole world in different ways.
Even in LDCs a clear demand-supply dynamic emerges with relation to medicine, where however more evident are social needs: poverty as a determinant for the quality of life and women's health. For example, in Egypt, when confronted with women's genital mutilations, the most modern reply is to have them done by hospital doctors, while the discussion should be diverted to the shared meaning of the control on women's sexuality (Diasio, 1998).
In my country, on the contrary, the last link with human reproduction is that passage from the female body, but is it still necessary or are we moving towards an era where physical maternity will cease to exist in wealthy countries, but not in the poor ones?
Medical science is approaching the realisation of total ectogenesis through the creation of an artificial uterus; this project presents some difficulties which will be overcome, if we give credit of the triumphal declarations of scientists involved in this field. This would make maternity an archaic phenomenon and at the same time, with clonation, we could manage without men in the reproductive process.
In order to attempt an answer to the alarming queries of the scenario so far delineated, I will conclude by listing the most important points in the medicalization of women's body, which highlight some positive elements emerged during the last few years:
  1. the recognition of an ethical dimension of the relationship between doctor and patient, where will and autonomy of the latter are potentially taken into consideration in a higher degree;
  2. an improvement in the relationship woman-obstetrician which has in part changed compared to that emerged from the research carried out during the 1980s;
  3. a recognition, though slow, of women's competence, be they those who cure or those who are cured;
  4. the valorisation of an "ethics of therapy" developed by women's thought which focuses on the guiding principle of connection and which by "therapy" means the preoccupation for others' fate, sustained by a knowledge, the most appropriate, of their reality, of the situation in which they live, their experience and needs.
These are examples which give hope and make us think that a long and complex social process can, on the one hand, produce elements of change and go into the direction for which we have been working for long, and on the other, rise preoccupations for what is happening in the field of human reproduction.



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