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Childbirth in the UK: suffering and citizenship before the 1950s

flagsPrior to the mid-20th century, the administration of pain relief for women in childbirth was confined to the wealthy or the morally unimpeached.  Lucy Baldwin, who lost one child at birth and suffered difficulties in delivering her other 6 children, was an ardent campaigner for womens’ rights to analgesia and improved standards of maternity care.

The following extract about the provision of maternity care to working class women, is from Childbirth in the UK: suffering and citizenship before the 1950s, an article in the Lancet by Joanna Bourke of the Department of History, Birkbeck College, University of London (Vol 383, 12 April 2014)

The women privileged enough to be given prompt relief were, of course, those who could afford it. It was a privilege, not a right. In Britain these attitudes began to change after the First World War, and accelerated from the 1930s and late 1940s. Pronatalist concerns about the declining birth rate and the dramatic rise in hospital births were important reasons for the shift. But public opinion, lobbying, and ideas about the rights of citizens were also important. The rapidity with which these changes took place is striking.

In the 1930s, Lucy Baldwin, a prominent member of the National Birthday Trust Fund and wife of the leader of the Conservative Party, let slip that she intended to mention the need to alleviate women’s pain in childbirth on the radio. The committee of the Trust, which was formed in 1928 with a mission to improve the lives of women, responded with uproar and begged Baldwin to desist, which she did. Yet, within 10 years, it seemed like everyone was talking about agonising contractions, split perineums, and episiotomies. In 1949, Conservative Member of Parliament Peter Thorneycroft even introduced a private member’s bill into Parliament, calling for accessible pain relief for women giving birth. Whilst Labour MP Leah Manning announced to Parliament that if male MPs gave birth, they would ensure that there was something more than “a towel…to pull on”.

Newspapers even published strident demands from women demanding pain relief. A letter published in the Gloucestershire Echo in 1942 and signed by “Six Expectant Mothers” complained that “any Cheltonian, rich enough to pay for [pain relief] can have it”, but the “poorer class” were “damned”. The war had changed their expectations. They protested the fact that:

“If a man wants a tooth out he has to have gas or cocaine. A soldier on the battlefield, when in great pain, has morphia administered to him. But a poor woman in the throes of childbirth; what does she get? Queen Victoria had her whiff of analgesics for all her confinements and what is good enough for Queen Victoria is good enough for SIX EXPECTANT MOTHERS OF CHELTENHAM.”

Women’s organisations across the country began lobbying their MPs and pain relief in childbirth was much discussed in debates about the National Health Service. As a result of changing attitudes—and not only of women but physicians and midwives as well—the proportion of women receiving pain relief in childbirth rocketed. In 1946, 68% of women giving birth in Britain had no form of analgesic whatsoever; this figure had halved—34%—within a decade, and then stabilised at about 2% in the 1970s and 1980s.

Read the full article:  Childbirth in the UK: suffering and citizenship before the 1950s, an article in the Lancet by Joanna Bourke of the Department of History, Birkbeck College, University of London (Vol 383, 12 April 2014)

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