Epidurals are not mandatory

// 9 October 2007

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The article by Zoe Williams in G2 last Friday about her experience of childbirth has received a lot of criticism, owing to the fact that she did by implication suggest that women who do not avail themselves of pain-relief during labour are foolish.

I discussed this in a post that I later removed, but to draw on some of the highlights of the original piece Williams claimed:

“They [midwives] spend their whole lives trying to persuade you to duke it out, just you, the pain and the inevitability. They talk about the “medicalisation” of childbirth, shaking their heads, as though everything was just fine, between your lala and the ginormous baby hoping to emerge from it, before pesky men came along with their la-di-da analgesia, their white coat technology. But why listen? Why not just say, no, I’ve done my homework, I’m in favour of pain relief for the removal of teeth and organs, and I don’t care how this was done in history.”

She goes on to remark that childbirth is now shot through with the “most ludicrous machismo,” and that:

“Everybody wants to do it warrior-style. Everybody wants to get by on just gas and air. And by the time you realise how unutterably stupid that is, how wilful, how meaningless, how totally irrelevant is such vanity in the face of mind-bending agony, by then it’s too late.”

But is it fair that Williams undermines the decision made by many other women to experience childbirth without pain relief, just because she believes that she needed an epidural? Surely that decision should be made at the discretion of the individual woman, free of judgement?

The comments she received can be read here, but here’s a taster, part of a response from Jennifer Hall, senior midwifery lecturer at the University of West England:

“Oh Zoe Williams, why do I have to read yet another article putting down midwives (Anti-natal, October 5)? Why couldn’t you have just said “I am a woman who felt she needed an epidural for pain relief”, without putting down those who work hard to support those who choose not to? Many women, with the right support in labour, are able to give birth with minimal pain relief. That is their choice and there are many benefits to both the mother and baby for being able to do this, not least the ability for both to be awake and alert afterwards. Sadly, we are in a culture which says “have a headache – take a tablet”, rather than considering ways of alleviating the causes of the headache in the first place.”

Photo by kellyandapril, shared under a Creative Commons License.

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