Tag Archive | history of childbirth

Book Review: Get Me Out

Book Review: Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth From the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank
By Randi Hutter Epstein, MD
W.W. Norton & Company, 2010
ISBN 978-0-393-06458-2
302 pages, hardback, $24.95

Reviewed by Molly Remer, MSW, ICCE

Since it shares a subtitle about the history of childbirth, I expected the new book Get Me Out to be very similar in content to the recent book Birth Day by Mark Sloan or to the book Birth by Tina Cassidy. I wondered how much more could possibly be reported about the history of childbirth. It turns out there is plenty more and I was delighted to discover that Get Me Out stands alone as a unique and interesting contribution to books of this genre.

Written by a physician and mother of four, Get Me Out focuses on some very recent elements of birth history including assisted reproductive technologies (ART), ultrasound, and freebirth, subjects not addressed in the books referenced above. Aside from familiar content about things like the Chamberlen brothers and the Twilight Sleep movement, the remainder of the text was fresh and engaging. Part one included an interesting and disturbing chapter about Marion Sims and his research and experiments with fistula repair on enslaved women. A later chapter explores Sims’ research with artificial insemination (this time with middle class white women). In fact, the latter half of the book contains an extensive historical look at artificial insemination, moving into present day history including an exploration of sperm banking and cryo-preservation of eggs.

Unique among birth history books is Epstein’s chapter on freebirth (more commonly known as “unassisted childbirth”) followed with a chapter about ultrasound including content about 4D and “novelty” ultrasounds. There is also a chapter exploring DES and its effects on reproduction.

Also different than Birth Day and Birth, is the total absence of memoir or personal reflective content. Epstein is a medical journalist and Get Me Out is written in that voice. There is a light, personal tone to the text, but nothing personal aside from occasional descriptions, observations, or quotes from interviews with sperm bank mangers (for example). I found myself feeling a little curious about her personal history of childbirth, an element freely interspersed throughout the texts of other recent birth history books.

As the author says, “…the way we give birth is a story about our deepest desires and our fundamental concerns about life, death, and sex.” Get Me Out is a fascinating tale focusing on our collective, cultural story about birth in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as well as dip into the story that continues being written today.

Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book for review purposes.

Book Review: Birth Day

Book Review: Birth Day: A Pediatrician Explores the Science, the History, and the Wonder of Childbirth
By Mark Sloan, M.D.
Ballantine Books, 2009
ISBN 978-0-345-50286-5
370 pages, hardcover, $25

Written in a fast-paced journalistic rather than academic style, Birth Day is a biological, historical, and sociocultural look at birth in our species, highlighting the experiences and skills of the fetus and newborn infant. The focus of Birth Day is on childbirth, but as a pediatrician, the emphasis of the journey in this book is on the baby and its development, skills, and remarkable adaptations to the womb and to life on earth. The book contains frequent references to evolution, which is not a concern to me, but may be to other readers.

The author’s personal experiences and observations are interwoven skillfully throughout the book lending an engaging “human” component—I loved his wry and occasionally self-deprecating honesty and realistic sharing. We read about the births of both of his children (one a very long labor eventually with an epidural and the second a scheduled cesarean due to placenta previa), his experiences as a medical student, and his observations as a hospital and clinic pediatrician. Dr. Sloan has been present at over 3000 births as a hospital pediatrician and 20 births as the baby “catcher” (medical school OB rotation). There is no real mention of homebirth, but occasional, supportive references to CNMs and to doulas.

The author has a healthy respect for the process of birth, noting in his conclusion that “…the most striking thing to me after all these years is how often such a complicated process goes right.” As a breastfeeding counselor, an element that I loved in this book was the author’s complete acceptance and integration of the importance and normalcy of the birth-breastfeeding continuum as well as the assumption of breastfeeding present throughout (bottles and formula do not make a single appearance throughout the 370 pages). This presentation was both very refreshing and completely appropriate.

The content of Birth Day was reminiscent of Birth by Tina Cassidy, with the primary difference being the emphasis on the infant’s experiences. There were occasional instances of questionable data such as, “An unattended breech birth, for example, is nearly always fatal to mother and child.” (?!)

Fast paced and often very funny, the author of Birth Day has a knack for explaining complicated concepts in simple terms and using effective analogies. I learned some new facts about the history of birth and was pretty captivated by the whole ride.

Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book for review purposes.

Cesarean Trivia

Anyone who is even slightly familiar with the history of childbirth in the modern world has probably heard the legendary story of the pig-gelder Jacob Nufer and the first successful cesarean section (performed on his wife in 1500). Successful because both mother and child lived, which had never before been documented to happen with a cesarean—and took quite some time to happen again. For example, there was a 100% mortality rate for cesareans performed in Paris for 89 YEARS (1787–1876). I’ve read several excellent books about the history of birth and feel fairly well-versed in the associated facts. However, this month I finished reading a new book by pediatrician Mark Sloan and was surprised to learn something completely new about the history of the cesarean section. This was that, the well-known legacy of Jacob Nufer notwithstanding, the first well-documented successful cesarean section performed in the English-speaking world was performed by Dr. James Barry in Cape Town South Africa in 1826. James Barry was quite the character, small of stature and very big of opinion and personality. He was a British Army officer who clashed frequently with everyone over everything (including even fighting duels!). He even had public arguments with none other than Florence Nightingale! And…then…the conclusion to this already interesting tale is that after Dr. James Barry died—after his forty year medical and military career—it was discovered that he was actually a woman!

I found this extremely fascinating. (I also imagined Jill at Unnecesarean using her Photoshop talents to make some kind of image about this…) So, despite the dominance of males in the medical profession, the first successful cesarean in the English-speaking world was actually performed by a woman! A point the author brings out in this discussion is that, “Here in the early years of the twenty-first century we have reached a point of high medical irony that would not be lost on James Barry: it now can take more courage—or foolhardiness—not to do a cesarean than it takes to do one.” How true.

Some other non-related quotes from Birth Day that I shared via the CfM Facebook page are as follows:

“Birth is about radical, creative, life-affirming change. It is about adaptation on a nearly unbelievable scale.” –Mark Sloan, MD

The quote above is in regard to the physical adaptations required by the baby immediately after birth—I see it as about both mother and baby though and I enjoy that it comes from a man and a doctor no less!

“Rigid plans work best if you’re building a skyscraper; with something as mysteriously human as giving birth, it’s best, both literally and figuratively, to keep your knees bent.” –Mark Sloan, MD

The above quote is from the segment about what he would want to tell his daughter about giving birth. Though the book wasn’t as “alternative” as many of the birth books I enjoy, I found Birth Day to be a very engaging and entertaining read!