The contentious debate about pain relief during childbirth
Posted by Nic Heath on July 20, 2009
Dr Denis Walsh, one of Britain’s leading midwives, caused a global furore last week when he spoke out against the ‘epidural epidemic’ currently sweeping the UK. Dr Walsh claims, among other things, 20 per cent of epidurals are given to women who don’t need them, and advocates alternative methods of pain relief during labour such as yoga and birthing pools.
Despite being reported by the BBC as saying in some cases epidurals are very useful, Dr Walsh’s comments have been taken as a personal insult by women all over the internet.
The collective outrage has been fed by provocative and misleading headlines:
Dr Walsh’s comments seem to have struck a sensitive seam of guilt felt by many women in relation to childbirth. The many stories and blog posts on the web about the issue have drawn thousands of comments from readers, and many mothers speak defensively about guilt and of being judged.
Remola from Wagga on a Herald Sun forum:
“All I can say is I AM A SUPER MUM just for being a mum and I’m happy to say I took the drugs 2 yrs ago and I will take them again if I feel the need despite what is said.”
Mammamia reader claystep asks “do mothers really need more stuff to feel guilty about??”
Another point of contention is Dr Walsh’s gender.
“To have a male carry on in this manner is just too ludicrous for words. What the hell would he know? … He can say what he likes, safe in the knowledge that he’ll never have to experience it!”
Mia Freedman struck up the refrain, ‘no uterus, no opinion’, in her blog post on the subject, ‘Brave man tells women in labour to toughen up because pain relief is for wussbags’, which many of her readers reiterated.
This is surely a counterproductive and reactionary response to Dr Walsh’s comments, not to mention one that is plain sexist. The reasoning behind it is dangerously exclusionary. It’s too easy to substitute one element and end up with something much more malevolent – say, ‘no uterus, no admission’ etc. Suddenly such logic is pretty clearly discriminatory.
It is the sort of thinking that many feminists have been seeking to overturn for years – when applied to circumstances such as the role of women in professional sport like AFL.
Dr Walsh is a senior midwife and associate professor in midwifery at Nottingham University, a good reason to take into account his opinion, and there have of course been more rational responses to his views.
Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists president Dr Ted Weaver:
What we want to get away from is the sort of maternity care where mothers are given an epidural to shut them up so they can…be baby-sat while the labour progresses.
“As women, we have been inculcated to believe that childbirth is a horrible and scary experience full of pain and fear. It is well known that fear increases pain and no doubt also increases the number of women opting for epidural, regardless of how their labour may or may not go.”
This whole episode raises a number of questions – like why have women reacted so strongly to a man recommending more options for women during childbirth, while actions to limit choice – the new restrictions on homebirths – have been almost entirely unremarked upon? Why would a woman feel guilty about her labour? And what can be done to make childbirth a more positive experience for women?