Childbirth and pain in history

À propos of a discussion over on Pharyngula… the history of the pain of childbirth as a cultural value is eye-opening.

Pain Online:

In 1521, a Dr. Viethes in Hamburg was found guilty of the capital offence of relieving the pain of a woman in childbirth. His penalty was execution.


“Dr. John Bonica invented the epidural block and administered it to his own wife while she was in labor with their second child in the 1930s, yet at least two full generations of women gave birth without benefit of an epidural, while the medical profession sat by with a sluggishness unmatched in history. It is time to relegate the so-called “beneficial aspects of pain” to the same grave where we have laid practices such as using leeches to bleed a patient”

In 1591 in Scotland, two women were executed: a new mother, Eufame McAlayne, for being suspected of taking a concoction meant to relieve pain, and a midwife, Annie Sampson, for being suspected of supplying it. (As I recall, Scotland’s last execution for atheism was in 1596, of a student who was reported to have been overheard speculating that biblical stories about God were comparable to the stories that other peoples had about their gods. James VI was a devout Roman Catholic—those are their good old days.)

Pain-free birthing:

When the anaesthetic effects of ether and chloroform were discovered in the mid 1800’s, many members of the British clergy argued that this human intervention in the miracle of birth was sin against the will of God. If God had wished labor to be painless, he would have created it so.

The 1800s saw a rhetorical battle between the religious and the scientific points of view over the throes of childbirth. I think we know who won!

Anaesthetics were subsequently used increasingly for labor pain, and the concurrent drop in mortality and morbidity in both mother and infant were attributed, in part at least, to the absence of pain which permitted the midwife or obstetrician to work unhindered in difficult labors.

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