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Elizabeth M Armstrong

Office of Population Research
253 Wallace Hall

How Does Culture Shape Medical Knowledge?

When obstetricians view the ultrasound screen, they see a fetus; their pregnant patients are more likely to see a baby. Today, the fetus is increasingly regarded as a distinct person, with its own rights. How does technology shape the way that we see and imagine the fetus, and the relationship between the fetus and the pregnant woman? How does lay knowledge shape or constrain professional practice? Who is the obstetrician’s patient—the pregnant woman or the fetus? In my current research I am investigating the notion of fetal personhood and its impact on the ethics and practice of obstetrics. I am interested in the ways that medicine both reflects and reinforces social norms.

In my first book, Conceiving Risk, Bearing Responsibility: Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and the Diagnosis of Moral Disorder, I trace the evolution of medical knowledge about the effect of alcohol on reproduction, from nineteenth-century debates about drinking, heredity and eugenics, to the modern diagnosis of fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), discovered in 1973. The book shows that medical beliefs about alcohol’s effect on offspring have always reflected broader social and moral preoccupations, particularly concerns about women’s roles and place in society, as well as the fitness of future generations.

Selected Publications: 

Conceiving Risk, Bearing Responsibility: Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and the Diagnosis of Moral Disorder, E.M. Armstrong, 2003, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

"Preventing errors in the outpatient setting: a tale of three states," E.M. Lapetina and E.M. Armstrong, 2002, Health Affairs, 21(4):26-39.

"De-romanticizing black intergenerational support: the questionable expectations of welfare reform," K.B. McDonald and E.M. Armstrong, 2001, Journal of Marriage and the Family 63(Feb):213-223.

"Lessons in control: Prenatal education in the hospital," E.M. Armstrong, 2000, Social Problems 47(4):583-605.

"Diagnosing moral disorder: the discovery and evolution of fetal alcohol syndrome," E.M. Armstrong, 1998, Social Science and Medicine 47(12):2025-2042.