Mary O’Brien was a professor of the sociology of education at OISE in Toronto. After emigrating to Canada from Scotland in 1956, she worked as a nurse before completing graduate work in political philosophy. Her book The Politics of Reproduction (1981) reinterpreted Marxist materialism, placing women at its centre and focusing on the labour of giving birth. Her book radically altered thinking on the position of women, offering cogent critique of traditional political thought by arguing that reproductive labour has been key to the creation of political order. In the 1990s, she wrote and spoke extensively about the development of reproductive technologies, including birth control, in vitro fertilization, and surrogate pregnancy, which she considered to be nothing less than revolutionary, capable of re-configuring women’s relationship to reproduction. O’Brien was a founding member of the Feminist Party of Canada in 1979. Although she was no longer a practicing nurse after 1971, she wrote and spoke extensively about healthcare and health care reform in Canada, with particular attention to the role and status of nurses. She died in 1998.

O’Brien’s lecture was a part of a series on “Health and Human Dignity.” She opened her lecture by explaining that her experiences as a nurse informed her work in political theory. Based on their traditional role in health care, women should be in the forefront of the battle to produce and reproduce good health. Good health is not a distant objective but instead a day-to-day struggle. Our individualist society, she said, refuses to recognize good health as the right to be well, but rather assigns it to the right to be treated with some semblance of equality once we are sick. Instead, O’Brien suggested that we understand good health as a physical, historical, and moral issues, a question ultimately of species persistance rather than of individual health alone. She connected this to women’s status both as healthcare workers and potential mothers. Turning health into a commodity had resulted in the reinvention of healthcare workers as a proletariat, while women at large were denied their reproductive rights. In the abortion debate, O’Brien suggested that the dominant definition of life was patriarchal: by understanding that it was women’s labour that transformed life in general to human life, we could move beyond the idea of abortion as either a right or a crime. Ultimately, “health is community, politics, and humanity,” and we must recognize feminism as a pre-eminent progressive ideology of our time to understand what it means to create and support good health.

The lecture was held on February 12, 1985. Listen to it below.

Mary O’Brien delivers her Dunning Trust lecture.
Poster for Dr. Mary O'Brien's lecture.