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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)

Hey Tuteur, wheres your proof to back up your comments?
Oh, and why don't you practice medicine anymore?

December 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDanielle Elwood

Grantly Dick-Read fabricated "natural" childbirth. It has no basis in science.
Wow. So having an unmedicated birth was "fabricated" in the 20th century? How exactly did women give birth for generations prior to that?

And as a non-white, non-upper class woman who gave birth twice without medication or intervention, I'm shocked to hear that natural childbirth is something that only white, upper-class women in America do.

December 3, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterspingirl

Gee, I guess since I had an unmedicated birth, I should expect a large sum of money coming in to push me into the upper class.

I won't hold my breath.

December 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda

The funny thing is, I live in a White, upper class area, and the VAST majority of women here are having medicated hospital births, at least from the statistics I obtained from the state for a project. I guess they must be lying to me too!

December 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDanielle Elwood

As I was reading this I could see others being horrified about Twilight Sleep, but I would like to see what our children's, children have to say about what our 'normal' view of birthing is...

Things will change, unfortunately not soon enough :(

December 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTonia N.

Ms. Tuteur, you do know that we are all familiar with your arguments and completely unimpressed with your lack of evidence? You don't seem to be interested in discussion, and have already determined what you think the truth is before examining any of the research. Which makes you a demagogue, not a source of information. You have the right to your opinion, but we are not required to listen to you.

December 3, 2009 | Unregistered Commenteremjaybee

Hi all,

I've been on deadlines and had appointments today. Sorry to leave this thread neglected but will be back to discuss Dr. Dick-Read a little later. Yesterday it seemed like I had nothing but time. Today, no.


December 3, 2009 | Registered CommenterJill

Danielle, I have to agree with you. I also live in a very white, upper class area, and a few years when pregnant with my first child, I lived in another well-known ritzy town--both were FILLED with women saying they wanted their epidural upon admission to the hospital, or signing up for their elective c/s or repeats. I honestly don't remember coming across another homebirth mama, or one who was planning a med-free birth.

December 3, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermichele

"Wow. So having an unmedicated birth was "fabricated" in the 20th century?"

That's not what I said, is it? I said that Grantly Dick-Read fabricated "natural" childbirth. "Natural" childbirth is a philosophy that has virtually nothing to do with childbirth in nature. Childbirth in nature is still experienced by women in Africa and parts of Asia, it is not experienced by women in the US using midwives, taking vitamins, having their blood pressure checked, listening to the fetal heart rate, etc. etc. etc.

"The funny thing is, I live in a White, upper class area, and the VAST majority of women here are having medicated hospital births, at least from the statistics I obtained from the state for a project."

You're joking right?The fact that the vast majority of women who believe in "natural" childbirth are Western, white and relatively well off is entirely different from saying that the vast majority of Western, white, relatively well of women believe in "natural" childbirth. I said the former, not the latter.

December 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAmy Tuteur, MD

Amy, I ♥ you.

I live in a white, upper class area, and I'm looked at like I turned purple and sprouted horns when I mention my unmedicated births. I am literally the only one I know who has even considered it.

My family has moved around a lot (navy contractor) over the years, and from coast to coast, that attitude is prevalent. Only in Oregon was it considered normal to give birth unmedicated - or *gasp* at home.

So Amy, please tell me where you got your information that only white, upper class women, give birth unmedicated? I'd love to read about it.

December 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMegan
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