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Convincing White Women that Birth is Painless Will End 'Race Suicide'


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A new method of analgesia that required constant monitoring also greatly influenced the move to the hospital. Developed in Freiburg, Germany, in 1914, “Twilight Sleep” used a combination of scopolamine, an amnesiac, and morphine, a painkiller, to remove all memory of birth. Women in Germany waxed ecstatic about this method; they reported going to sleep and awakening to find their beautiful baby lying in a bassinet. So compelling were accounts in women’s magazines that upper-class U.S. women traveled to Germany to give birth, approximately at the outbreak of World War I. Early feminists supported Twilight Sleep as promoting faster recovery from birth and thus helping to equalize the sexes in public life. Conservatives thought it was the answer to “race suicide,” the failure of Anglo-Saxon women to have enough babies to outnumber immigrants from eastern and southern Europe. If childbirth were totally painless, then Anglo-Saxon women “should” want to have large families. From about 1930 to 1960, Twilight Sleep was the preferred analgesic in U.S. hospitals.


Hospital births began to increase in frequency as more women demanded Twilight Sleep, but Twilight Sleep was being used by some to lure white women to the hospital to make more white babies? In the meantime, feminists were touting memory-free, drugged birth as healthier by saying that it got women back up on their feet again more quickly after childbirth so they could help equalize the sexes? And obstetricians launched racist and classist attacks during this time on midwives in order to protect what they felt was the dignity of obstetric arts and their only way to create a single standard was to medicalize childbirth by bringing it into the hospital?


The co-optation of birth and women’s bodies… a time-honored tradition, apparently.



Photo credit

Mankiller, W., (1998). The Reader’s Companion to U.S. Women’s History (pp 90-91). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.

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Reader Comments (152)

I absolutely LOVE when you go back and take a look at the history of birth. Sadly this is disturbing, and if twilight sleep was still being used today, I am sure they would still be using this in extreme racist groups!

December 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDanielle Elwood

Hah, the editor/author is named Mankiller.

December 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterShannon

That picture of the old school nursery just breaks my heart.

December 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterErinn

Yeah, when moms were anesthetized they obviously couldn't care for their babies for awhile. The history of the newborn nursery is pretty interesting.

December 3, 2009 | Registered CommenterJill

A must-read on this topic is the new book "Deliver Me From Pain." I think it's vying for first place right now on my list of the best books to read about birth. I knew a lot of the things she discussed, but not in that level of detail. It's fascinating to see how the development of obstetric anesthesia is absolutely central to the evolution of obstetric practice and hospital maternity care.

December 3, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterrixa

This season's Mad Men had an episode showing twilight sleep. Interesting and disturbing.....and my Grandma did remember it (and how awful she was treated under the assumption the wouldn't remember) even though they apparently used it on her. :(

December 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNaomi

My grandmother speaks very eloquently about her Twilight Sleep births in the 50s, in both the US and in Germany, and how terrible they were. She describes being left completly alone in unmedicated labor, scared and needing support, and then having the doctor put a mask on her and then waking up to a baby, not remembering anything. At least in New York, it was still going on in the early 70s-- my mother in law, who gave birth the first time in 1973, had a natural childbirth until pushing, at which point she was put under and my husband was pulled out with forceps. She remembers nothing of his birth and first few hours, either.

My mom is a labor and delivery nurse, and has been since 1971, and remembers the Twilight Sleep births vividly. She was a huge Lamaze advocate and was part of the movement for natural childbirth in the 70s.

December 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKristin

I think it's important to note that the "racism" here is Western (Anglo-Saxon) European vs. Eastern European. The history of the IQ test is also interesting -- one of the flaws in it was that early IQ tests asked questions about Americana -- who won the 19?? World Series; who was the pitcher for the Yankees in 1903, etc. Questions most Americans knew, but few foreigners, who might not have even been in the country at the time, or were working too hard and/or didn't know the language, would not have known. This led to some population/immigration quotas to keep the OBVIOUSLY stupider Eastern Europeans (who were more Johnny-come-lately immigrants than Western Europeans) out of the United States. Sure, it was also used for other races (as we use the term today); but the original use of "race" was much more narrow than it is used now -- and that's the sense it's used in this piece. People would often speak of "the race of the French" or whatever -- it was not used primarily to describe "the races" (black, white, Asian, Native American, Australian Aborigine, and whatever other artificial people groups are currently en vogue) that are commonly used today.

December 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKathy

"Artificial people groups"

What does that mean?

December 3, 2009 | Registered CommenterJill

Ditto Rixa on "Deliver Me From Pain" - really goes in-depth on this topic (although I would have loved even more in-depth!)

Interesting because Amy Tuteur just posted on the "science-based medicine" blog about the "roots" of unmedicated birth in similar racial stuff (Grantly Dick-Read apparently talked about the same issues). She was using it to slam natural birth by saying it had a basis in these same racial fears. It would be nice to send her this link, and ask if we can all just agree that people love to control women through reproduction/reproductive processes so we're basically going to find this stuff cropping up anywhere we look.

December 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca
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