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A Quick History of Medication in Maternal Health Care - (and the Business of Being Born)

Posted Apr 04 2012 9:45am
originally posted on 5/12/07

Taking the lead from another great blogger I read often - try to find her ;o) - and from a recent viewing of the Business of Being Born - I wanted to touch on the dark blemish of American Obstetrical practice - routine medication for birth. (BTW, it is funny that this was shown as a screening in the midst of a High Risk conference for Vanderbilt - on the heels of a recent development plan ).

While watching the Business of Being Born - a WONDERFUL look at childbirth practices in the US - I was struck by one very apparent thing: doctor's know nothing about bodies and birth. They know everything about risk - and, as one OB nurse told me, their job was to take away pain and have a healthy mom - not to get the best outcome.

That mentality was prevalent back in the late 1800's - early 1900's when OB's infiltrated the childbirth field and it is prevalent now. FRIGHTENING! Why is it frightening you say? Let me expound...

Let's start with the advent of anesthesia in general. It all began on October 16, 1846, at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, in a room now called the Etherdome, when William Morton administered the first successful public demonstration of ether anesthetic. This was a great breakthrough for SURGICAL needs, and the news spread around the world quickly. So quickly in fact, that within a month the first modern anesthetics had been given on both ends of Europe, and within six months in Australia and China.

One doctor who heard of the use of ether was James Simpson. Breaking out of his social class, he put himself through medical school and later became the chairman of obstetrics at the University of Edinburgh. He is best known for the forceps which he devised to counter his initial use of ether on maternal patients.

His first maternal patient was a woman whose pelvis was deformed by rickets (a common issue in that time from malnutrition) who delivered on January 17, 1847. These deliveries can be especially difficult because of the manipulation needed to get a baby out of a deformed pelvis.

There was a great concern, though, for this use of ether because of the knowledge that ether often stopped contractions. As well, most babies born from ether-administered mothers had ether-smelling breath, ether smelling placentas, and tires/lethargic/unresponsive babies. So, Dr. Simpson created forceps, to pull babies from their mother's wombs before they were 'too drugged' and to minimize the incidence of failed labors due to ineffective or stalled contractions. Then why was it continued?

To understand the merging of surgical breakthroughs and maternal downfalls, we need to look at the social climate of the time. Two major events were happening: childbirth was taken out of the home and into the hospital (where disease and infection ran rampant), and the feminist movement was on the rise.

"Early feminists campaigned for social reform of all types, for the abolition of slavery and the abolition of the use of alcohol. They were also concerned about improvements in health care, particularly for women and children. They had good reason to be concerned. Although death rates for men and women had been falling throughout the nineteenth century, risks of a woman dying in childbirth had not decreased. In New York City, for example, 15% of deaths of women between the ages of 20 and 40 were related to childbirth. Although deaths from other causes had decreased, deaths from childbirth had not. By 1900, 30% of the deaths of women in this age group were attributed to childbirth." - now remember that those deaths were NOT due to childbirth - but malnutrition causing complications in birth, deliveries being moved to hospitals where illnesses and disease ran rampant, and before the advent of antibiotics - IT HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH MIDWIFERY and THE SAFETY OF HOME BIRTH.

Suffragettes saw maternal health care as a significant area that needed improvements. The only problem is that they focused on the labor of childbirth (pain/discomfort) rather than the true source of the maternal and fetal demise of the time. Not to fault them as the information and scientific breakthroughs were not accomplished yet; in their early industrialized minds, pain equated illness and death.

(Maternal death rates dropped slightly in the US between 1880-90, when doctors rooted out the nature of childbirth fever in relation to cleansing practices in the hospitals. They started washing their hands between women's beds and the death rates dropped. Then, the numbers steadily rose again until 1940, when they dropped once again (steeply and greatly) with the introduction of antibiotics).

Queen Victoria used ether when she delivered Prince Leopold in 1853. From Inside Surgery
"Queen Victoria went into labor on the morning of April 7, 1853. As her physicians readied her for the birth of Prince Leopold, John Snow positioned a handkerchief moistened with 30 drops of chloroform over her nose and mouth. The Queen had an immediate response to it. Over the next fifty three minutes he reapplied the anesthesia fifteen times, using between 15 and 20 drops each time. The birth was without complication and the child was pronounced healthy, although at the time no one knew that he was afflicted with hemophilia.When accounts of Queen Victoria's labor anesthesia reached the general public, John Snow became an instant sensation and was much in demand by the social elite of London."

The National Twilight Sleep Association was formed in order to support the use of a new maternal anethesiac development begun by a young obstetrical doctor by the name of Carl Gauss. Around 1900, Gauss combined two drugs that had been in the medical armament for a long time to treat childbirth pain. One main component was morphine, used to alleviate pain during surgery. It had, thus far, been avoided in obstetrics because of its effect on the uterus, its effect on the newborn, and its effects on bleeding and infection. The other drug was scopolamine, which causes amnesia - in the past, these had been used as poisons in high doses. Hamlet's father was killed by one of scopolamine's cousins.

Gauss mixed these two drugs and administered them in 'small doses' to his patients - the morphine provided relief from pain while the scopolamine provided the women with amnesia of their labors and what was done to them. The problems? Oh, there are many!!! Scopolamine caused women to lose their inhibitions. They would have no memory of what went on, nor did they realize what was happening, so most of them screamed during labor. They became uninhibited and psychotic. They would thrash about on the bed, causing injuries to their heads. So, their heads were wrapped with blankets or towels, turban-like. They would attempt to claw at the walls or their medical providers, so they were put in straight jackets or their wrists were strapped to the beds. Then, so that they would not fall out of bed, they were put in 'labor cribs' - and were allowed to labor, screaming, tied down, blinded and bound - often in their own urine and feces, and sometimes for days on end, until it was time to birth. The women had no memory of this, the husbands were not allowed in to see their wives, so they didn't know what was happening - and everyone was happy.

Gausses concoction was tried out first in Europe and was found to be less than satisfactory for maternal care. It would probably have died out there had it not been for an infamous article in McClure's magazine. Two female reporter's who were also staunch feminists, accompanied their friend to Germany, where she was traveling to be 'treated by Dr. Gauss'. The woman was administered Twilight Sleep and was ecstatic with it. She simply woke to a baby - with no memory of the labor or birth. The three women decided to liberate American women through Twilight Sleep.

Every woman wanted to have that type of birth. Medical research was not sought as to the safety, and feminist drive demanded quick results. So - the U.S. because predominantly a Twilight nation between the years of 1914-1945 (although my grandmother recounts her story of TS in 1956 and there are reports as late as the 1980's).

Thankfully (and sadly because of what it took) this time in American history quickly collapsed when Frances Carmody died under Twilight Sleep. Although there had been numerous women who had died under Twilight Sleep, she was the wife of a Brooklyn lawyer and happened to also be a huge rally organizer for the Twilight Sleep Campaign. Her husband and her OB assured everyone that her death had nothing to do with Twilight Sleep, but, with a key organizer gone from the game, at the very time she was using something she was promoting, the campaign began to fall apart.

Women began to have windows of remembrance, and by 1948, the baby boom got into full swing and the huge number of women having babies while under Twilight Sleep raised the issue of comfort at a cost. Women began reporting their birth trauma - both physical and emotional/mental. Moms began to speak out. And, in 1958, an article headlined "Cruelty in Maternity Wards" ran in Ladies' Home Journal. It detailed the "tortures that go on in modern delivery rooms.". The response? A flood of women sent the magazine their own horror stories. "I've seen patients with no skin on their wrists from fighting the straps," a nurse from Canada wrote.

"Just let a few husbands in the delivery rooms and let them watch what goes on there," said one reader from Detroit. "That's all it will take — they'll change it!" An Indiana mom claimed, "The whole thing is a horrible nightmare."

Women began desiring and demanding safer births - the OBs were fraught with the problem that they could not guarantee a medicated, but safe, birth. So, in the 1960's and 1970's - many women went back to natural birth. This was short lived, though, as Obstetrician's saw income diminishing... Cue the epidural.

Mothers giving birth in the late 1970s and '80s had more options than ever. They could have a medicated or unmedicated birth. They could deliver in a freestanding birthing center, a hospital, or at home (in most states). They could be attended by a midwife, an obstetrician, or both (in some states). And, through all of these options, they could have their husbands by their side.

What led up to the advent of the epidural? In 1898 German doctor August Bier injected cocaine into his assistant's spinal column. It numbed his lower body, but the next morning he awoke with horrible vomiting and headaches (cue the spinal headache). It took the next 80 years to perfect this. But, by the 1970s, lidocaine was dripped into a tube inserted by needle into a woman's spinal column. By the 1980's, it was all the rage! The hitch? The procedure numbed women to their chests, causing breathing issues and, at times, heart problems.

My question - and the question that Ricki posed in her documentary is this
What will we find in the near future is the clinically proven downside to epidural births? We NCB advocates already know of the obvious, though seemingly unimportant to many women when compared to an easy labor, risks... But think of it...

- In the late 1880's early 1900's it was chloroform / ether - which inhibited neonatal breathing attempts, caused forceps to be necessary (which caused many horrible scarring issues with babies), maternal reproductive harm, and heart failure routinely.
- In the early to mid 1900's, it was forceps - which were necessitated from the use of 'knock 'em out medications. These scarred women's cervix's, making them incapable of dilating at all or efficiently in later pregnancies, tore ears, noses, and scalps off of babies, and created severe perineal and labial scarring in women. Forceps are still used today!
- In the mid 1920's, it was Twilight Sleep - causing maternal mental, emotional, and physical trauma, more of the same as chloroform did, AND caused a number of incidences of stillbirths.
- In the mid 1950's-60's, it was thalidomide, prescribed to pregnant women routinely - causing the widespread incidence of 'flipper babies' - children who were born with severe malformities, including phocomelia (short limbs and deformed extremities).
- In the 1970's, it was early spinal/epidurals where the needles were too large and the puncture too deep, causing a whopping 50% of women to get debilitating spinal headaches that, at the time, were not treatable.
- In the 1990's, it was Cytotec, used to induce labor (off-label and unapproved). With a HUGE risk rate, it can/did cause stillbirth, neonatal distress, uterine rupture, severe postpartum hemorrhage, and more. Cytotec is still used today!

What do all of these things have in common? NONE of these procedures are tested before they are tried out on pregnant and laboring women. We are used as guinea pigs. So, my, and Ricki's question, again, is: What will we find in the near future is the clinically proven downside to epidural births? And, at what cost?

We have a huge increase in ADHD, ADD, Autism, early and late-onset Jaundice, asthma, and allergies/intolerances... how can we know that these are not a result of our maternal health practices now? We can't. BECAUSE, we are a society driven on comfort and ease rather than health and well-being. Well-being does NOT equate to ease or comfort. And, until we demand better health care, we are doomed to repeat history on different levels - until we learn to choose better for our bodies and our babies and leave the testing to the REAL guinea pigs.

See here and here (pic) for more information on this history.

*Edited to add the great information sent to me by some readers!
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