The Theft of Childbirth

Immaculate Deception: A New Look at Women and Childbirth in America

by Suzanne Arms
San Francisco Book Company/Houghton Mifflin, 318 pp., $6.95 (paper)

Birth Without Violence

by Frederick Leboyer
Knopf, 114 pp., $7.95


Childbirth has nowhere been regarded merely as one possible event in a woman’s life. The Hebrews saw in women’s travail the working of “Eve’s curse” for tempting Adam to the Fall. The Romans called it poena magna—the great pain. But poena also means punishment, penalty. Whether as a “peak event” or as a torture rack, childbirth has been a charged, discrete happening, mysterious, polluted, often magical; in our current idolatry, a triumph of technology. Thirty years ago, in Male and Female, Margaret Mead noted the violence done by American hospital obstetrics to both infant and mother in the first hours of life.1 Within the last few years, partly within and partly outside the women’s movement, criticism of technologized childbirth has been growing, notably in California, where an important case is under appeal by a group of midwives in Santa Cruz who are charged with practicing medicine without a license.

Two recent books, with differing tones and perspectives, criticize the depersonalizing of hospital birth (American-style, though increasingly faddish in Europe) and recommend alternatives. Frederick Leboyer, a French obstetrician, is Americanized in the sense that he assumes that the mother’s problems have been solved by hospital delivery; for him the radical issue is the handling of the newborn in the delivery room immediately after birth. Suzanne Arms, an American photographic journalist and a mother, is concerned with the warping of childbirth in modern obstetrical practice, its transformation into a “medical event” with consequent physical and psychic damage to both mother and child.

The technology of childbirth began with the forceps, first used in the seventeenth century by surgeons as a means of hastening slow labors, but forbidden to—and criticized by—midwives. The forceps and its monopoly by male practitioners were decisive in annexing childbirth—previously a woman’s event often taboo to men—to the new medical establishment, from which women were barred. The annulment of pain by ether-inhalation was discovered by a Georgia doctor in 1842; both ether and nitrous oxide were shortly after used in dentistry by Horace Wells and W. T. Morton, and the term “anesthesia,” suggested by Oliver Wendell Holmes, soon became accepted. In 1847, using ether in a case of childbirth, James Simpson in Scotland showed that contractions of the uterus would continue even if the woman was unconscious, and proceeded to experiment with and use chloroform to relieve the pains of labor.

A fierce theological opposition was mounted; the clergy attacked anesthesia as a “decoy of Satan, apparently offering itself to bless women; but in the end it will harden society and rob God of the deep earnest cries which arise in time of trouble for help.”2 The lifting of Eve’s curse seemed to threaten the foundations of patriarchal religion; the pain of labor was for the glory of God the Father. Alleviation of female suffering would “harden” society, as if the sole alternative to the mater dolorosa—the suffering and suppliant mother, epitomized by the Virgin—was the fanged blood-goddess, devourer of her children.

This view still…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.