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Deliver Me from Pain

, 296 pages

8 halftones, 4 line drawings

February 2009



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Deliver Me from Pain

Anesthesia and Birth in America

Despite today's historically low maternal and infant mortality rates in the United States, labor continues to evoke fear among American women. Rather than embrace the natural childbirth methods promoted in the 1970s, most women welcome epidural anesthesia and even Cesarean deliveries. In Deliver Me from Pain, Jacqueline H. Wolf asks how a treatment such as obstetric anesthesia, even when it historically posed serious risk to mothers and newborns, paradoxically came to assuage women's anxiety about birth.

Each chapter begins with the story of a birth, dramatically illustrating the unique practices of the era being examined. Deliver Me from Pain covers the development and use of anesthesia from ether and chloroform in the mid-nineteenth century; to amnesiacs, barbiturates, narcotics, opioids, tranquilizers, saddle blocks, spinals, and gas during the mid-twentieth century; to epidural anesthesia today.

Labor pain is not merely a physiological response, but a phenomenon that mothers and physicians perceive through a historical, social, and cultural lens. Wolf examines these influences and argues that medical and lay views of labor pain and the concomitant acceptance of obstetric anesthesia have had a ripple effect, creating the conditions for acceptance of other, often unnecessary, and sometimes risky obstetric treatments: forceps, the chemical induction and augmentation of labor, episiotomy, electronic fetal monitoring, and Cesarean section.

As American women make decisions about anesthesia today, Deliver Me from Pain offers them insight into how women made this choice in the past and why each generation of mothers has made dramatically different decisions.

Jacqueline H. Wolf is a professor of the history of medicine and chair of the Department of Social Medicine at Ohio University and author of Don't Kill Your Baby: Public Health and the Decline of Breastfeeding in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. She is also the host of Conversations from Studio B, a monthly radio show on health and medicine that airs on the NPR affiliate in southeast Ohio, and was host for six years of Health Vision, a weekly show that aired on the local PBS affiliate.

"It is sometimes difficult to reconcile the attitudes of contemporary thought with the historical event that is under consideration. As I closed the book, I was still uncertain about whether more anesthesia is better. But I am relieved that we live in an era in which it is no longer accepted that there is a physiological advantage to pain during labor."

"I would recommend this book to health professionals who are committed to understanding and acknowledging that every woman experiences childbirth in an individual and unique manner."

"It is perhaps Wolf's utter engagement with the material that is responsible for producing such a dynamic history."

"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... [that] should not—really, cannot—labor without numbing their bodies to the sensations of birth."

"Much needed addition to the blossoming scholarly work on childbirth history."

"Wolf has written a fascinating overview of childbirth from the 1840s to the present day. In doing so she has used women's voices to advantage, letting them tell their own experiences."

"Wolf's unique focus on pain management brings a fresh perspective to the literature about childbirth and new understandings of this life-changing event in women's lives and histories."

"Like many of the women she describes, Wolf has delivered a beautiful product that is both painless and joyful to encounter."

" Deliver Me from Pain is an important addition to the literature, especially in the history of gender and pharmaceuticals... An absorbing and informative tale."

"An important study of the choices made by other generations. For those who care about and study birth, understanding how we got here and why is imperative in considering where we go from here."

"This book will be of great interest to scholars in the field, to young men and women researching their birth options, and to veterans of childbirth, wanting to understand their place in this fascinating history."

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