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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