Shifting Understandings of Labour Pain in Canadian Medical History

Here we continue showcasing articles from our June special issue on “Pain and its Paradoxes”. Beginning with the observation that the pain associated with childbirth is a universal biological reality, Whitney Wood, in her article “Shifting Understandings of Labour Pain in Canadian Medical History,” explores how such pain is nevertheless understood in different ways by different people, and that these variances are both culturally and historically conditioned. Wood unpacks the debate surrounding the application of new anaesthetic technologies in late-Victorian Canadian obstetric practice, noting that the professional literature represents a valuable cross-fertilization of medical practice in Great Britain, the United States and in Canada. Drawing on Elaine Scarry’s 1985 The Body in Pain and Joanna Bourke’s 2014 The Story of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers, Wood shows how the micro- and macro-politics of the debate surrounding pain relief is, in Bourke’s words, ‘never neutral’ (6), and that arguments for and against its use reveal how women were represented in different ways according to their socio-economic and racial backgrounds. Middle-class white women, framed as more delicate in contrast to the perceived hardiness of indigenous women, provided the ground for practical and humanitarian arguments for the use of anaesthesia. Indeed, as Wood argues, new anaesthetic technologies gave obstetricians ‘new ways to exercise professional expertise and authority over patients’ bodies’ (4). The advent of such pain relief technologies also led to new understandings of pain, thus enabling the formation of new discourses associated with childbirth. The multiple and competing accounts of birth pangs, as Wood shows, became a core part of the debate over the application of anaesthesia.

Wood describes her approach to the unexplored topic of labour pain in the audio below.

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