The power of giving birth: An interview with Nancy Wainer Cohen


"Childbirth is the eye of the needle through which all of society passes ..."
--Norma Swenson

Historically, the way we give birth in this country has been shaped by trends, rather than being influenced by research-based science.

In the 1920s, Dr. Joseph B. DeLee painted a bleak picture of birth as a pathological event -- where the infant needed to be saved by surgical intervention. He would "rescue" infants (and women) from the trauma of birth. Drugs were used to numb the mother, her vaginal opening was enlarged with an episiotomy, forceps removed the baby, the placenta was manually removed, and the new mother was stitched up and returned to "virginal conditions." Many injuries and deaths occurred during this period, further confirming to DeLee the danger of birth.

During the 1940s most women gave birth in an unconscious state, courtesy of drugs such as scopolamine. Women of that time seemed very happy to be numb, and end the "suffering" their mothers experienced in childbirth. They looked at birth without drugs as uncivilized.

But even then dissension was brewing. A physician named Gertrude Nielsen caused a furor in 1936 when she attacked the use of analgesics for birth, strongly suggesting that they were a major cause of the high maternal death rate. "An analgesic that is perfectly safe for mother and child has not been discovered," Nielson said. Even the Ladies Home Journal scoffed at Nielson saying that to deprive a woman of drugs for birth was similar to refusing chloroform during an amputation.

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