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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)

Amy, you can take a look at my above comment where I mentioned your post. Eugenics was a big thing the early 20th century. That lots people did then, and still do now on a (sometimes) subtler level, want the "right" kind of women to make the "right" kind of babies should be no surprise if we just look at the history. You can paint a lot of people with the eugenics brush - the anti-choice people have done a lot of work on Margaret Sanger, but it doesn't mean that the modern reproductive rights movement is trying to abort all non-white babies. I think it's important to always be mindful of racist/sexist historical connotations and flawed arguments, and be actively trying to eliminate them from our thinking and acknowledge them where appropriate. But if we tried to rule out arguments about aspects of women's reproduction by removing the ones that have had some past in racist or sexist thought, we'd end up with no arguments at all.

December 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

What's amusing about this to me (although I totally understand the history behind it) is that Shafer and I feel (on a personal/social level, not a racial level) that natural childbirth is necessary (or, at least, extraordinarily important) in order to make certain that our children have the best start to be some of the best people. We think the pain (or work, at least) is necessary and beneficial for the best entrance to the world, honestly.

December 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTara

"Artificial people groups" I think that phrase is referencing the fact that any people grouping we use - French, white/black, Jewish, etc - is created rather than intrinsic. In other words, people are people. You can group them up in many ways, but however you choose to divide them up is no more than your own choice. There is no inherent, inbred, intrinsic division between people. Our groupings are created in whatever way is currently in fashion; therefore, the way we classify people can easily change over time.

December 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSarah Lancaster

Dang it all, who said "Beetlejuice"?!

December 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDou-la-la

the "new school" nurseries break my heart, too.

December 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAbundant B'earth

dou-la-la - ROFL!!

maybe if we say it 3 times the bogeyman will go away again?

December 3, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterandi


Can you please provide some more information regarding your idea that natural childbirth has recent origins (specifically, as you say, by G-R)? Can you please explain how your idea correlates with the fact that many (most, I would say) other cultures have a more community-oriented and supportive view of childbirth, sharing stories and assisting each other through pregnancy, labor, delivery, and child-rearing? Can you please explain what you mean by "women who claim to be feminists...still perpetuating racist and sexist lies about childbirth"? I'm sorry, but I don't actually know where the basis is for any of your information, so it's hard to discuss the topic with you.

Then again, you aren't actually known for using data appropriately, so perhaps this is from another "study" that you've read and misinterpreted?

I haven't seen anyone here demanding that women birth certain ways. I haven't seen anyone attempt to control the pregnancy or birth of anyone else. I have, however, seen a lot of frustration from women unable to make choices through lies, threats, and outright force - generally from OBs and hospitals. I have seen mothers have their children taken away, at least for short periods of time, because they refused to consent to actions being *demanded* of them, contrary to all sense, science, and law. The natural childbirth community is there to educate women on choices, choices they are not being given in other situations. It IS there to allow women to choose for themselves what is the best course - even if it's one we disagree with. It's not there to threaten, to make ad hominem attacks, to deceive, or to separate. It is there to provide support, love, trust, and honesty, and OBs can be involved in that as well, if they choose.

December 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTara

Congratulations Jill, the famous Amy Teuter found your blog and left a completely nonsensical comment as usual...you've officially arrived :-)

Thanks for the post. Interestingly, my impression of the natural birth community is one that cares about *all* women and babies, and choice for *all* women. I've heard frustration that women aren't told the risks of interventions, not frustration when women are educated an make those choices anyhow. And anytime someone criticizes someone else's choices, someone else always calls them on it, IME...in a similar spirit to your blog entry on Thanksgiving Day.

So natural birth is confined to upper class white women? Really? Maybe in America, but the world over I think most women giving natural birth are poor and have no health care in the traditional western sense...or live in countries with nationalized health care (based on experience of a friend from Romania, who told me to appreciate that epidural is an option here b/c it's not over there). Where do those stats come from anyhow? Please clarify. And you think natural birth convinces white women birth is painless? Really? Hahahahahahahahahahahahahah. Yeah. Painless. Uh huh. I'm actually speechless at that one....

December 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAnne

"Artificial people groups" -- sorry, I was typing quickly and didn't fully elucidate. Artificially assigning people to set groups based on outward characteristics, such as race. When you look at the human race as a single group, instead of artificially dividing it up into various groups, a different picture emerges. At least it does to me. Rather than rigid lines keeping us apart, there is a fluid morphing from one to another. There are really no characteristics that are stereotypical of one race or another that are not found in most/all races... just in different quantities or percentages. One of my blond-haired blue-eyed friends has some Native American in her maternal past, and she inherited the high cheekbones and almond eyes. She tells the story of going to a Japanese sushi restaurant and seeing her double (only in different color -- black hair and eyes, with bronze skin). I have big lips, thanks to my dad, which is stereotypically assigned to the African "race," although my dad was 100% Dutch. My mom and many people on my maternal side have curly hair -- she was actually asked as a teenager if she was black due to her hair, although her skin is definitely white. I once saw a picture of my mom's aunt or great-aunt when she was elderly, and I thought, "Who is this black woman, and why is there a picture of her in my Grandmother's things?" But she wasn't black; I thought perhaps she or one of her parents was mixed-race who had "passed" as white, but she wasn't -- we've been able to trace enough ancestry to make that seem impossible. But the picture of her when she was 80 -- the shape of her face and her facial characteristics made me think she was black, because they were either stereotypically "black" or they reminded me of other elderly black women I had known. A geneticist friend of mine told me that they did a genetics test in England, where they were trying to track the Y-chromosome (passed only from father to son), and one man's Y chromosome was African, but he was a WASP -- "white anglo-saxon protestant"! That's interesting. So, they sent a DNA test to all the men with the same last name as this person (since the Y chromosome, like the last name, was passed down from father to son), and sure enough, all the men with that same last name likewise had the same "African" DNA, but looked as English as anybody else. [Probably, an African came over, perhaps as a slave, perhaps even earlier, like in the Roman conquest; and was either left behind or stayed behind, and fathered at least one son. His DNA has survived.] Things like that. We just need to see people as people, and not as some stereotypical group, that's all. The human race, singular; not races of humans, as if we were all different species or something.

December 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKathy

"You can paint a lot of people with the eugenics brush - the anti-choice people have done a lot of work on Margaret Sanger, but it doesn't mean that the modern reproductive rights movement is trying to abort all non-white babies."

Margaret Sanger did not fabricate birth control. She proposed that birth control be used for immoral means. Grantly Dick-Read fabricated "natural" childbirth. It has no basis in science.

The main point of my comment, however, was to point out the claims that I made about Grantly Dick-Read years ago have been true all along. The same goes for all my other empirical claims. Jill is finally acknowledging them, and now has to find a reason to dismiss the truth.

I don't make up my scientific claims about "natural" childbirth and homebirth; they are true and they must be addressed if "natural" childbirth advocates intend to be taken seriously.

December 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAmy Tuteur, MD
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