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Pain relief in childbirth: changing historical and feminist perspectives

Department of Intensive Care, St George Hospital, Kogarah, New South Wales

Summary

Pain during human childbirth is ubiquitous and severe. Opium and its derivatives constitute the oldest effective method of pain relief and have been used in childbirth for several thousand years, along with numerous folk medicines and remedies. Interference with childbirth pain has always been criticised by doctors and clergy. The 19th century saw the introduction of three much more effective approaches to childbirth pain; diethyl ether, chloroform and nitrous oxide. Access to pain relief was demanded by the first wave of feminist activists as a woman’s right. They popularised the use of ‘twilight sleep’, a combination of morphine and scopolamine, which fell into disrepute as its adverse effects became known. From the 1960s, as epidural analgesia became more popular, a second wave of feminists took the opposite position, calling for a return to non-medicalised, female-controlled, ‘natural’ childbirth and, in some cases, valorising the importance of the pain experience as empowering for women. However, from the 1990s, a third wave of feminist thought has begun to emerge, revalidating a woman’s right to choose a ‘technological’, pain-free birth, rather than a ‘natural’ one, and regarding this as a legitimate feminist position.

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