Deliver Me from Pain—Anesthesia & Birth in America
by Jacqueline H. Wolf

[2009, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 277 pages, hardback.]

[Review first published in Midwifery Today Issue 94, Summer 2010, © 2010, Midwifery Today, Inc. Review by Kelly Moyer.]

For anyone interested in understanding how birth in America has swung so far away from being a natural, physiological process, Jacqueline H. Wolf’s book, Deliver Me from Pain—Anesthesia & Birth in America, is a must-read.

Divided into chapters that explore the various methods of anesthesia used during birth, from ether and chloroform in the late 1800s to the modern use of epidurals and planned c-sections, Wolf’s thorough study is so much more than a description of America’s nearly 200-year-old fascination with medicating laboring women. Instead, as she explains in her conclusion, Wolf’s history of anesthesia during labor is key to understanding the entire context of modern American obstetric treatment.

With a writing style that is academic but not cumbersome, Wolf takes her readers through a history of pain relief during labor and tries to pinpoint why women have come to believe that they need epidural anesthesia.

Using historical anecdotes, such as this gem from Cyrus Edson, the commissioner of health of New York in the late 19th century, who “contended that giving birth transformed vulnerable women into lifelong invalids and blamed girls’ increased access to formal education for the tragedy. Sitting in a classroom during puberty, he argued, drained girls’ strength, leaving little in reserve for childbirth in coming years”; Wolf opens her readers’ eyes to the vast history that has layered the medical community’s ignorance onto a persistent belief that childbirth is the worst pain a human will ever experience, then topped it off with a population’s growing need to “schedule” birth into our increasingly busy lives, and come up with a society where women, and the doctors who attend them during pregnancy, labor and birth, truly believe they should not—really, cannot—labor without numbing their bodies to the sensations of birth.

Reviewer Kelly Moyer is the managing editor of Midwifery Today magazine and the mother of Eva Dolores, who was born at home in 2002. Kelly has been a journalist for 14 years, trained to be a doula at the International Center for Traditional Childbearing in Portland, Oregon, and is an aspiring midwife.

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