Is there an "epidural epidemic"?

Mothers respond to a leading British midwife who claims "it's good for women to experience the pain of childbirth"

Published July 14, 2009 3:15PM (EDT)

 "It's good for women to suffer the pain of a natural birth," reads the headline of a recent story in the Guardian. The article discusses the controversy stirred up across the pond by influential British midwife Dr. Denis Walsh, who's been speaking out about what he calls "the epidural epidemic."

According to the Guardian, the number of women getting epidurals in England has "soared" to 36.5 percent. (An MSN story on epidurals, meanwhile, puts the rate in America at nearly double that, at about 65 percent.) And Walsh is having none of it. "Some [women] just don't fancy the pain [of childbirth]," he says. "Pain in labour is a purposeful, useful thing, which has quite a number of benefits, such as preparing a mother for the responsibility of nurturing a newborn baby."  

Experts are split on his crusade: Mary Newburn of the National Childbirth Trust called his comments "timely and important" while a senior obstetrician quoted in the piece dismisses them, adding that he's overstating the dangers of the epidural. But here at Broadsheet, we wanted to hear from our own experts -- the women on staff who have actually had a baby. We asked for their take:

Lynn Harris: Look, I was in it for the baby, not the birth journey. And let it not be misstated or misunderstood -- even medicated childbirth involves plenty of pain. It's not like you're blissed-out and utterly unaware of your nethers. You are a full and active participant, even with las drogas. Not that I should even have to defend my two epi-tastic births on those grounds. I mean, women can give birth however they want. I'm just not interested in hearing that someone else's way was birthier than mine.

Joy Press: First baby: no epidural. Still have psychedelic flashbacks to the pain. Second baby: epidural. It came a little too late, but no searing agony registered in the birthing databank. Add me to the needle brigade.

Amy Benfer: If pain is part of the "timeless rite of passage" that prepares one for "the responsibility of parenthood," however will fathers learn to bond with their babies, the poor dears? Might the doctor suggest an appropriately painful equivalent for male partners to enhance their appreciation of the mighty, mighty force of birth?

This kind of thing just smacks of sadism to me. Even those women who don't "fancy" pain will get a pretty hefty dose in the hours and hours that typically precede an epidural. And it makes me utterly furious. For the record: I used many of the techniques mentioned in this article -- a little yoga and a lot of hypnotherapy -- way back in '89 and I did, in fact, get through birth without any drugs. But then again? I was 16.

Mary Elizabeth Williams: And further to the chorus of those who wonder how dads are supposed to bond without passing a human through an orifice, drug-free, I suppose parents who've adopted or who've had C-sections are missing out on the glory as well.

My first labor lasted 39 hours. I would have required considerably more medical intervention had I not had an epidural after those first magical 25 hours of sleep and medication deprivation. I'm all for empowering people and don't believe in unnecessary intervention, so hey, if Dr. Walsh thinks it's about not "fancying" pain, he's welcome to undergo his next operation without anesthesia. 

By Broadsheet Staff

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