The Politics of Female Pain: Women’s Citizenship, Twilight Sleep and the Early Birth Control Movement

by Lauren MacIvor Thompson

Thanks for reading “The Politics of Female Pain: Women’s Citizenship, Twilight Sleep, and the Early Birth Control Movement” in this month’s issue of Medical Humanities! If you are interested in the contemporary issues surrounding women’s health, pregnancy, and labor and delivery, this article will help shed some light on how we have arrived at our current moment. Today, in the United States, statistics for both maternal and infant mortality remain grim compared to others in the developed world, and the rates of epidurals are 10% higher than they were just 10 years ago. Understanding both these sets of statistics is crucial for improving outcomes going forward, and my article helps shed light on the historic factors that contributed to them. The article explores the increasingly contentious relationship between women and physicians in the early part of the twentieth century over the new labor technique of “Twilight Sleep.” The mixture of scopolamine and morphine helped laboring women forget the pain of labor as an amnestic, while also physically lessening it. Women’s rights advocates were intensely interested in this new procedure, even as many physicians remained suspicious and aware of its dangers to infants and mothers alike. As I explore in the piece, their disagreements over what was best for both women and babies would shape much of the state of women’s health for the rest of the twentieth century, including the fight over legal birth control. Today, these histories continue to resonate in the public debates about pregnancy and women’s health, between natural and hospital birth, and the question of “no epidural” or “epidural.” Thank you for reading!

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Read the full article on the Medical Humanities Journal website.

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