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Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born

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From evolution to the epidural and beyond, Tina Cassidy presents a lively, enlightening, and impeccably researched cultural history of how and why we are born the way we are.

Women have been giving birth for millennia, so why is it that every culture—and every generation—seems to have its own ideas about the best way to get a baby born? Among the topics that Tina Cassidy looks at are: why birth can be so difficult (blame our ability to walk on two legs, for instance), where women deliver, how the perception of midwives has changed (they were once burned as witches), the lives of some famous obstetricians, and the many ways childbirth has been deadly (lots of blame to go around). Birth is full of quirky details, startling facts, and tales both humorous and disturbing—from men disguised as women to get into delivery rooms to a news flash about a woman giving herself a C-section.

From Jessica Mitford’s seminal The American Way of Death to Mary Roach’s Stiff, we’ve witnessed how millions of readers are fascinated by what happens at the end of life. Here is the riveting true story of how it begins.

320 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2006

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Tina Cassidy

4 books16 followers

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 450 reviews
Profile Image for Amanda.
60 reviews1 follower
December 1, 2007
I just finished this book, and I was disappointed to recognize many sections of it as coming from another book that I am currently reading, Milk, Money, and Madness. I don’t think the author exactly plagiarized, but its pretty close. For example, Cassidy says in Birth
“At Dublin Foundling Hospital, of ten thousand hand-fed infants between 1775 and 1796, only forty-five survived infancy, an astounding mortality rate of 99.6 percent.”

In Milk, Money, and Madness, it reads
“At the Dublin Foundling Asylum during 1775-96, where dry nursing was in vogue, only 45 children survived out of 10,272-a horrendous 99.6% mortality rate.”

Just a few paragraphs later Cassidy says
“The ignorance and confusion surrounding bottle preparation spurred Nathan Straus, owner of Macy’s department store in New York, to give away pasteurized milk to poor children at philanthropic “stations,” a concept that had also taken hold in Europe…”

Milk, Money, and Madness says
“Milk stations were soon all the fashion. At the turn of the century, “milk depots” were established in France, Britain, and the United States… In New York, Nathan Strauss of Macy’s, working through health department clinics, organized milk stations where pasteurized, bottled milk was provided free for the needy and at low cost to others.”

You get my point. I saw dozens of these kinds of passages, which was a real turn-off. Milk, Money, and Madness came out 11 years earlier, and apparently used fantastic sources since Cassidy lifted passages like the ones above.

My other complaint is that Cassidy swings back and forth throughout the text. First she talks about how its a miracle that any of us can survive childbirth and that we’ll soon all need C-sections because our kids keep getting bigger and bigger. Then she talks about how doctors are killing us all and homebirths with midwives are safer. Then she says she’d never homebirth.

I’m very glad that I read this after my latest pregnancy. Cassidy admits that she doesn’t trust her body, and it is evident in the text. I wouldn’t recommend this book to a pregnant woman.

Cassidy has some really cool pictures in here though. The chapter on C-sections was horrifying, but really interesting at the same time. I feel so many mixed emotions about this book. I’m glad that I read it, but I wonder if the sections that I liked could’ve been found in other books.
Profile Image for Amie.
59 reviews5 followers
September 5, 2007
I'm still reading this but there are important clarifications to be made for those just starting their exploration of the birth world:

First, homebirth is NOT illegal other than in a handful of states, and there are very legitimate ways of them becoming licensed, recognized, and counted. Cassidy writes that there is no way of knowing exactly how many of these renegade illegal midwives are out there. Actually, most states have recognized license requirements and these "licensed" "direct-entry" or whatever else you want to call them, midwives practice quite within the scope of the law. In addition to that there is the CPM (Certified Professional Midwife)designation offered by NARM (North American Registry of Midwives). In my state, Medicaid is actually required to reimburse for homebirth! This is just such a glaring error and oversight that it took quite a bit of interesting factoids in the following chapters to forgive her for it. Almost.

The excessive discussion of cephalopelvic disproportion in the first chapter was another example of something that did not seem to be adequately researched. The only disproportion I saw there worth paying attention to was the amount of time spent discussing CPD, which as another reviewer mentioned, is extremely rare. As well as being virtually impossible to diagnose pre-pregnancy or labor as the pelvis changes shape and size throughout pregnancy, the birth process and based on position of the woman.

Now for the good: I definitely enjoyed reading the book and it was a comprehensive history hitting the high and low points of birth throughout the ages. I have a bit of a penchant for truly gruesome tales of medical lore, and on that front, "Birth" definitely delivered. In fact, I'm pretty sure I don't need to hear the word "craniotomy" again. Ever. And it is definitely rare to find a modern book about this topic that is as unpoliticized as this one was. Her bias leaks through only slightly, and probably not anything anyone not well versed in fairly extremely out there birth practices would even notice.
Profile Image for Witty.
152 reviews11 followers
November 19, 2012
This book should be titled Birth: All the Ways We've Screwed Up Over the Last 400 Years. Definitely not a book to be read by pregnant women or anyone a little fearful of childbirth and hoping to have a baby someday. That's not to say it isn't an extremely interesting book. It's quite gruesome and graphic, which helps. Very informative. Not for anyone looking to find a book with a positive outlook on birth. It does, however, note that when doctors came onto the scene, fatalities went up, and when midwives went up in popularity again, fatalities went down. It also shows through the information that a woman being in control of her own birth experience results in the most successful and least traumatic of births. While it is quite unbiased, it really is just about all the ways we've screwed up, hardly taking notice of how beautiful natural birth has been, and can be in this day and age.
Profile Image for Amanda Troyer.
67 reviews3 followers
May 20, 2008
truth be told, i'm squeamish. it's the reason why my career as a nursing major was short lived, post-cat dissection.

i'm also a sucker, so when the new york times book review told me this was going to be a lighthearted romp through the single greatest pain your mother went through, i fell hook, line and sinker. plus, my friend is almost a midwife and i figured it's nice to know what your friends do for a living. what i got instead was a lesson on why your mom has every right to ground you...even in your twenties and why you shouldn't sass your grandmother (because she was probably knocked unconscious to deliver your mom...which, just to refresh, is how you got here). i also now know how to describe a c-section in exquisite detail.

at least i have some new random facts that should come in handy next go-round of trivial pursuit...as well as a strong desire to never have offspring. ever. i also think that my friend the midwife might just be as badass as i suspected. i think i need to go hug my mom now.
Profile Image for Anna (Bananas).
394 reviews
August 20, 2014
So, this was both fascinating and traumatizing in equal measures. A major theme of the book is how stunningly and arrogantly we've messed with childbirth throughout the ages. However, life saving measures have also emerged, ever so slowly and often despite doctors' misguided efforts.

Birth is a tough read at times, especially for me, being a new mom. One of the beautiful things about parenthood is that it breeds empathy. Anything involving harm to a child becomes unbearable to consider. Do NOT read this if you're about to have a baby for the first time. Seriously. Descriptions of C-sections, craniotomies, puerperal sepsis, fistulas (shudder), the dangers of those 3D sonograms, deep episiotomies, and symphyseotomy (double shudder) are not things you should be thinking about. Go read up on Birth Without Fear instead. Hell, I need to, just to cleanse my palate.

All that being said, I enjoyed the book. I certainly have a better understanding of the history of birth, which was in fact the point. The purely scientific sections are engaging, especially the first chapter, Evolution and the Female Body. The author does a good job explaining anatomy and medical procedures and tools. She did, however, jump back and forth through time quite a bit, which was confusing at times - but that's a minor complaint.

Essentially, if you're interested in birth in all it's splendid, sordid glory then this book is for you.
47 reviews4 followers
February 13, 2008
i was reallly excited about this book. but it turns out it sucks. i have several issues with it... 1) it reads like a hs history of science paper. it's just description after description after description of random, useless stuff. 2) it jumps all over the place time-wise. it talks about forcep use in the 1700s, and then about how the design of those particular forceps are similar to the ones used in the 1900s in chicago, and then several pages later randomly references the guy who invited the ones in the 1700s. GAH. it was so annoying. 3) there were grammar errors EVERYWHERE. this was the worst part. there were run-on sentences. run-on sentences in a published book. so annoying and hard to follow. 3.5) this didnt bother me AS much, but it was really clear that the author was extremely biased toward natural birth and just kind of shot down modern medicine and epidurals, etc. i mean i don't have any basis of comparison for these issues, so she could have very well convinced me if she had argued her point reasonably, but instead just threw out these wide-reaching statements like "it's probably that not nearly as many women would have died if..." without producing any evidence. it was infuriating. it was clearly her opinion, or if not, she did a terrible job of convincing me there was any support for these theories whatsoever.

so... NOT GOOD. there were interesting parts, but it also really seemed to depend on gore to keep the book moving. you'd have to keep reading because you want to know what horrific thing happened to whatever woman. i couldnt even finish it, and i'm really, really interested in this stuff. a shame!!
33 reviews
September 16, 2010
The title is misleading it's more of a history of western medical intervention into the birth process with a special emphasis on the negative. While it was informative, I felt it was colored by the author's bitterness about her own experience and I would have preferred a more expansive history of birthing customs and traditions from around the world.
Profile Image for Emily.
120 reviews579 followers
June 30, 2017
I learned so much about childbirth in this book, but I thought it was quite dry in parts and not structured for enjoyable reading. Also, the author's bitterness about her own birth experience is apparent throughout the book, and I think it colored a lot of the issues she was discussing. Despite all that, the content of the book was fascinating and I have a lot to think about should I ever choose to have children myself.
Profile Image for Tiffany.
157 reviews7 followers
February 10, 2010
I LOVED this book! I'm not sure how she did it, but Tina Cassidy found a way to explain all of the details of birth in such a fascinating and entertaining way. It's easy for authors of nonfiction books to get caught up in the facts and references, leaving little room for enjoyable reading. However, this author definitely pulled it off. I'm not gonna lie, there were times where I cringed, and other times where I outright vowed never to get pregnant or have a child. I can't believe women survive this! It has to be the most painfully unpleasant experience ever!

I'm not sure I'd recommend this book to a pregnant woman. Maybe wait until after the baby is born before you decide to crack it open. But then, I think you'll find that you walk away with so many fascinating tidbits of information. I'm so ready for the next cocktail party where I can whip out an impressive fact or interesting story. Here's one, just to tide you over:

"In 2003, on a morning rush-hour subway car in Boston, a woman quietly delivered a baby, which fell to the floor, sliding among the feet of horrified commuters. The mother, a former nurse who was trying to get to the hospital on time, picked the child up, clutched a handrail, stared out the window as if nothing had happened, and politely refused offers of assistance. Witnesses screamed as the train pulled into the station. The woman exited, but as she bolted for the stairs, the placenta dropped onto the platform. She stuffed the afterbirth in her shoulder bad and kept going before authorities tracked her down to make sure she and the baby were okay."

Profile Image for Dustin.
92 reviews15 followers
February 29, 2008
Not done yet, but holy crap. Is there any field of medicine more gripped by fads than obstetrics? Frankly, we're lucky western medicine hasn't wiped us from the face of the earth! If you are unable to run useful studies (who wants to test stuff on pregnant women? you'd be crazy!), how can you make decisions and predictions for what is right? Why not just treat them as *healthy, pregnant* women, and not as someone who is sick who needs intervention...unless they actually DO? It turns out we're pretty well built for this whole birthing thing, seeing as how we've been doing it for aeons.
Profile Image for Heather.
Author 12 books55 followers
December 26, 2008
My favorite quote from the book was this:

"...birth reflects the culture in which it happens. In patriarchal societies such as Islamic Bangladesh, conditions are poor and there is rarely help and many women die. But in Polynesia where fertility is esteemed, new mothers are pampered and have skilled midwifery help. In Victorian times upper-class women were encouraged to be frail and childbirth seemed so unbearable they wanted no part of it, so they slept right through the delivery. In the 1940's and 1950's women-- including my grandmother-- were tethered to the home and strapped down in the hospital. In the 1970's, the liberation movement awakened women and empowered them to break free; conscious birth in new places became a badge of honor. In the 1990's women struggled to maintain balance in their lives, they chose to be part of birth but without the pain, so they signed up for epidurals." Pg. 250-251

I have hope that we will be able to move away from a culture that sees women's bodies as dysfunctional, dangerous and unpredictable. That we will be able to move towards a culture that values women's amazing gift to give life, that sees her body as capable, beautiful and strong. One in which little girls aren't told that birth is traumatic but are taught about how amazing it is to give life, and how they are able to perform the greatest miracle in this world. I hope that once we are able to attain that, that our culture's birthing practices will change to meet it.

I almost couldn't make it through this book because I was getting so angry about how AWFUL birthing women have been treated in the United States! I was shocked to learn that hospitals use to give women drugs that would make them sleep through labor and have hallucinations.In the 40's they use to strap women to beds, give every woman an enema and shave her pubic hair as part of the hospital routine, examine her belly with an x-ray machine, and take her baby away from her right after birth-- and dad's weren't allowed in! The history REALLY made me sad, but did give me hope that things have changed and that things still can change. I just hope that in 50 years my daughter or granddaughter look back at how hospitals treat birthing women today and won't believe that there was once a time when women weren't allowed to eat in labor, were induced for convenience, that babies were put under warming lights to get warm instead of on the mother's chest,that formula samples were given out in hospitals, that some hospitals (like several IHC hospitals in Utah) had c-section rates of over 30 %, and that epidurals were handed out like candy.

This book just really made me see that women have been giving birth SO many different ways for thousands of years, and that there have always been people who try to control and manipulate birth. But the truth is that birth is the greatest miracle in this world, and no matter what we do to change it or manipulate it, God is ultimately in control. Women are just privileged to be a part of it.
920 reviews27 followers
June 7, 2018
(June) (3.5*) A friend recommended this to me as an interesting read. It was definitely interesting, although even though it is only 12 years old it reads as somewhat dated (I'd love to see the author do an update - trends and stats have changed since 2006). Such is the world of childbirth - something that has been happening for literally tens of thousands of years yet for the last 500+ there have been trends, fads, and all sorts of changes that affect how a woman brings her child into the world. It was also fascinating to read about how certain tribes around the world handled birth (and some still do).

The historical chapters were by far the most fascinating, even though more than once they made me cringe at the brutality brought forth on pregnant women. It's not really a surprise that it's men - specifically doctors - that tried to take over world of pregnancy and childbirth, believing they knew better than midwives who'd been assisting in childbirth for hundreds of years. Before doctors knew to wash their hands the amount of women who died just after giving birth was staggering - and don't get me started on C-Sections and birthing instruments. The idea that men used to examine women and help during birth while the woman's lower half was covered so her genitals were kept private is amazing.

The newer fads and trends of the last 100 years - pain relief found in ether and twilight sleep, shaving and enemas, water births and husband coaches and Lamaz and birthing centers and nurse midwives and home births- it's like a trip through a time capsule. Every woman has a birth story and what is most amazing is whether you've had one child or ten, I think most women can tell you details of each and ever birth.

Myself - after a few years of infertility and miscarriages I had two children - one an unplanned C-S after almost 24 hours of labor and no progression. The second was a planned C-S. I was not looking for a birth experience - I didn't want a focus item or music or breathing. In the words of a friend: "I wanted zero pain...the doctor should be standing behind me with the epidural while I am bent over the admittance desk signing myself in." I was thrilled to have a pregnancy end with a child and how he got out was so unimportant - doctor could have used a fire to smoke him out and that would have been fine with me! I could go into detail but suffice it to say my birth "experience" worked for me - I liked the OB, the nurses, the basic hospital room (I had my kids before my hospital upgraded to birthing suites - I labored in a plain basic room w/a bed and a chair; ditto my recovery room the next few days).

I don't think this is a scary book for pregnant women. Instead, it shows how far we've come and reminds us that while birth is the one of the most common thing that happens in the world on a daily basis (350K+!), each and every birth is still special.
Profile Image for Rebecka.
1,114 reviews83 followers
July 21, 2015
VERY interesting. I had no idea that 1) giving birth is so difficult for humans in comparison to other species and 2) people have made such a huge mess of it since like forever.

Here's something difficult that may fail and kill both the mother and child, so let's screw it up even more by adding superstition, religion and general idiocy to the mix!

The midwife vs. doctors issue in particular is very frustrating. I get the impression that back in the days when things were left to other women (midwives, experienced mothers, etc.), people died and there were nasty mishaps, but considering the times and general level of medical knowledge, the mortality rate wasn't really shockingly high. Then you add doctors who aren't allowed to practice on real women and who just want to use their prestigious, shiny tools to tear the child out of the heavily medicated mother and people just die (because washing your hands is lame) or are mutilated for life all over the place. And burn the midwives, because they're witches anyway. (Very simplified summary with jumbled facts across multiple timelines.)

Since this book mostly focuses on the US and GB, I'd now very much like to know how these things work in Scandinavia. Lots of different countries are mentioned in the book (mostly for the sake of providing curious practices here and there and gory details readers like me crave), but the main focus is on the US, where complete madness seems to be the general approach to childbirth. Drugs, drugs and more drugs. Weird procedures (if in doubt, just cut it open a bit and hope for the best). And then cesareans (push them on everyone since they cost more). The 20th century in particular seems to have been an age of general stupidity over there. Have we been equally stupid in Scandinavia? It mentions the extremely low mortality rates for mothers in Sweden and some practices in Denmark, but there are no general statistics. This book gives the impression chances of everything going right were so slim some hundred years ago that I don't quite see why anyone would risk having babies.

Statistics is something this book could benefit from. More overviews, easy tables, that kind of thing. Timelines. Graphs. As it is now, I know I've read a fascinating number SOMEWHERE, but finding it again is impossible (I've got the paperback). A more scientific and structured approach in general would have added an extra star to my rating.

Oh, and lots of reviewers mentions that this is a scary book for people who contemplate having babies or who are pregnant. I'm neither, but I at least didn't find it scary at all. People are greatly exaggerating how bad it is. What did they think childbirth was like anyway?
Profile Image for Adam.
66 reviews14 followers
July 18, 2012
Did you know that 18th century doctors wishing to observe an actual birth frequently sneaked into the labor room wearing a dress? Or that it's possible for a woman to perform a cesarean section on herself? Tina Cassidy's history of birth is filled with a wealth of fascinating historical accounts relating to how humans have been born, from ancient civilizations to the early twentieth century. Cassidy chronicles the plethora of superstitions, fads, and scientific theories (good and bad)that have dominated the event that a significant number of women consider the most important in their life.

This was one of the most engrossing historical books that I've read quite in a while. It reads quickly, maintaining a good level of information without boring with minutiae. Cassidy's writing is smooth and somewhat literary, probably attributable to the fact that she is a journalist rather than a medical professional. I suppose I'm biased in favor of the topic because my wife is pregnant, but I think that anyone with an interest in sociology, medicine, or gender studies will find the book fascinating, not to mention those who are simply curious about how approaches to the birthing process have evolved (hint--often cyclically). Cassidy definitely favors some non-mainstream approaches, such as home births, non-medicated labors, or vaginal births after cesarean, but she does a good job of balancing her positive view of alternative techniques with a fair presentation of why hospital births have become the norm, why doctors have become favored over midwives, or why 1/3 of American births happen via a cesarean. She also provided a daunting bibliography with which she seems quite comfortable.

(One important note--this book is not for the squeamish, as Cassidy goes into some detail about horrific extraction procedures for failed births. These passages could easily be skipped.)
Profile Image for Sarah Jane.
47 reviews4 followers
August 21, 2009
Hmm. This book was a mixed bag. It's one of the many books I'm reading for research for a class I will be teaching at UCSC on the radical politics of birth and midwifery as feminist praxis. While I learned a lot from it about the general history of pregnancy and childbirth (everything from the origins of lamaze to induction to doulas), I found that the author had a rather fluffy analysis of why there has been such an incredibly harsh history of pregnancy and childbirth shaped by larger social dynamics. She threw around the word "patriarchy" a couple of times, made commentary that the way in which childbirth plays out is shaped by the culture it is a part of....but failed to have a thoroughly critical analysis of race, class, and gender dynamics....

There were so many histories left out of this book.

However, on a basic level, for someone who is picking up a book about the history of childbirth for the first time with the interest of thinking more critically about childbirth generally, this is a good place to start.

I mean, i'm glad this book exists.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
19 reviews5 followers
March 1, 2011
I learned a lot from this book and enjoyed it, but I do have a few issues. The actual history of birth is completely fascinating (and horrifying!) but the book itself is a bit meh. The timeline is all out of whack, so when I thought of a fad or strange practice (like craniotomies-- look it up) I could never remember during which century it was popular. The author didn't dive too deeply into home birth-- and seemed kind of flippant about it, honestly-- which was strange because I'm pretty sure she's a natural childbirth advocate.

Regardless, this is a great book if you're at all interested in the history of how women have given birth. It makes me happy that it exists; the material doesn't explore interventions as much as say, Pushed, but it's good for a regular, non birth-junkie to read and understand the severity of unnecessary medical intervention in childbirth.

Plus that anecdote about childbed fever and corpses will stay with me forever, oh my god.
453 reviews20 followers
August 2, 2015
Despite a 15 page bibliography, Cassidy's book misses some important information about the way birth is handled. For example, she repeated laments labors that were 16 hours long "with no end in sight", despite the fact that 16-24 hour labor is normal for first time moms. She writes at length about the size of our foremothers' pelvises (too small) and the effects of rickets on said pelvises. From there, she extolls c-sections, without discussing the serious side effects of surgical birth for mom and baby. In the future, she expects moms to either all schedule c-sections or go immediately for epidurals. Again, she doesn't mention the serious side effects of unnecessary medical interventions. It is not surprising, then, when she pooh-poohs natural childbirth and non-medical ways to manage labor, such as coaching, doulas, and hypnosis. The whole book was one-sided, not something I expected from a veteran reporter. Not recommended.
Profile Image for Kari.
821 reviews16 followers
February 7, 2018
Fascinating, horrifying, and enlightening. I'm glad I'm a woman giving birth now, but it's so interesting to read the trends of how our birthing practices have come to be, and how some of them might not be so great after all. There were a few areas I would have liked more information and history that felt glazed over, but I thoroughly enjoyed this book overall.
Profile Image for Heather.
32 reviews27 followers
August 10, 2021
Incredibly fascinating, moving and informative. Although there is an US-American focus, Cassidy does touch on the practices around the world, and how they differ. This book is not for the faint hearted, though, as some of the descriptions are very graphic and of course, not every birth is a happy one.

Overall I think this was a great book and a good introduction to the topic, a must for anyone interested in medical and women's history (or, both) and I'm looking forward to seeing if there are other works by Cassidy.
Profile Image for Ashley.
1,011 reviews
May 2, 2013
This was a great read! Covering the history of childbirth, Cassidy does a superb job of informing the reader but still keeping a somewhat light very non-textbook feel. Recurring themes include: a) when men show up on the scene, maternal-fetal mortalities increase and b) childbirth is rife with fads that leave the next generation wondering what the heck everyone (doctors, mainly) were thinking.

A few of the most interesting things:
- Cassidy touches on the fact that human and animal births are so different. Animals typically seclude themselves whereas women prefer to be surrounded. Animals are typically quiet, calm, and treat birth as a natural part of life. Humans tend to medicalize childbirth, treating it as an illness that needs active management. Actually, humans are the only mammal that require assistance to give birth. Howler monkeys can deliver in about 2 minutes.
- We can thank our difficulty with childbirth to our bipedalness, which has the side effect of making the pelvis narrow. Human newborns - and their heads - are much larger proportionately than other mammal newborns. Gorilla newborns weigh only about 2% of their mothers' body weight compared to 6% for humans. Polar bears, which can weigh in excess of 500 lbs. give birth to cubs with heads smaller than a human newborn. While newborn heads are large, some think they would be even larger if evolution hadn't hit a wall with regards to pelvis size. A more developed brain means a larger head, which just isn't happening with current pelvis sizes. This leads to the related conclusion that human infants are more helpless than other newborns at and in the first few years of life. A human newborn's brain will quadruple in size after birth; other mammals (many who begin walking shortly after birth) only experience only a doubling in size.
- Heaviest baby (toddler?) ever born (one would hope by c-section) was 22 lbs (!!!) and 8 oz in Italy in 1955.
- The word gossip is based on the word God-sibs or sisters-in-God who would surround and support a woman in labor in Europe and early America.
- For centuries, women were denied pain medication (beginning with chloroform) by male docs based on Genesis 3:16 in which God told Eve she and womankind were destined to "sorrow in childbirth". Some women were even burned at the stake for trying to find relief. A savvy doctor also pointed out that the Bible says Adam "went into a deep sleep" similar to anesthesia when one of his ribs was removed to make Eve.
- The epidural began in 1898 with a German doctor who injected cocaine into his assitant's lower back to see if a numbing effect could be achieved. Today, more than 90% of American women opt for an epidural.
- Somalia is the deadliest place on earth to give birth, chiefly due to rampant genital mutiliation. The average women there will birth 7.3 children with a maternal mortality rate of 1,100 per 100,000. Sweden, has one of the lowest maternal mortality rates with 2 deaths per 100,000.
- Birthing on the back came about when male docs came on the scene - in efforts of modesty, the woman could be draped and the doctor would use only his hands - not his eyes - to deliver the baby, deal with complications, etc. The woman lying on her back made this easier for the doctor, but is a most unnatural position for a woman to birth a baby.
- Men (except doctors, when they came on the scene) used to be outright barred from attending to their pregnant wives. Medical students would often not see an actual birth until they began practicing. In 1522 a doctor snuck into a confinement dressed as a woman and he was later burned to death.
- Placenta is the Latin word for cake. Perhaps this is why some people eat it in some form or fashion? Gabriele Fallopio named it in the mid-16th century along with 'vagina'. Fallopian tubes would later be named after him.
Profile Image for Taryn.
10 reviews1 follower
March 6, 2014
I really enjoyed the history and anecdotes included in the book. I'm definitely glad I spent the time reading it. What I didn't appreciate were the times that Cassidy got into "the math", which was often misleading. I'll give two examples, though there are many others.

Cassidy mentions that out of approximately three million women in the US who give birth vaginally every year (a number that I think is actually lower currently?), "thousands" experience long-term incontinence. "Thousands" normally means a lot but here, that's a tiny amount, and a number which I would appreciate a reference to, given the number of friends I have with this issue is a ratio much greater than, say 20,000/ 3 million or 0.7%. This seemed like a careless mention of a risk of vaginal birth to me.

Then there's the section on water births, which just killed me. She mentions a British study of 4,000 water births in which five babies died, but then goes on to explain that one of them was actually known to be dead before birth, one from a concealed pregnancy where the mother gave birth at home alone in a tub, and at least two of the other three had issues that couldn't possibly be attributed to the water (neonatal herpes and under developed lungs). Yet Cassidy still uses all five to compare the death rate in water births - 5/4000 to "low-risk land births", 1.2 to 0.8 per thousand. This is not even close to an apples to apples comparison. If she had not even bothered to do the "low-risk land birth" comparison, that section would have been perfectly ok, but as it is, it's misleading. In her defense, she does eventually point out that none of the deaths in the British study were attributed to the water.
Profile Image for Bonnie.
67 reviews
June 21, 2009
I enjoyed this book because it is a subject I am very well versed in being a labor&delivery nurse who works at a freestanding birth center with midwives. What I liked was her journalistic, investigative approach to the subject. Sure, she sprinkled some editorial comments in here and there, but mainly it read like she did a lot of research. I liked how she divided the subjects up and followed them through history to the present in each chapter. I think more of an editorial/coinclusion would have been good; I actually felt like hers was too short, too "let the reader draw their own conclusions". But again, journalistic.

What stood out to me, interestingly, was the positive contributions MEN have made to how women give birth. While I see midwives taking care of women in a low-risk, low-intervention environment every day, it's through the research of Michel Odent, Michael Rosenthal, Bradley, Lamaze, Dick-Read, and many others that we know things like waterbirth are safe and there are ways to help a women relax in labor and therefore have a safer, better childbirth experience. So while male obstetricians often get a bad rap for their abuses of women, lets not forget the ob's who are champions of women's choices. And female OB's tend to be worse than the men when it comes to interventions these days. I think many guys, husbands and doctors alike, want to see women take their power in birthing and it women ourselves who have given it away out of fear of pain and fear of birth rather than having the courage to go through the rite of passage and see where it takes us.

So, the book made me think about birth in a new way, no easy task for a veteran. Well written.
Profile Image for Munthir Mahir.
60 reviews10 followers
September 15, 2016
I bought this book interested in learning about one of life's two profound events: birth and death. Both are so significant and powerful yet they are fleeting events that usually are relegated, eventually, into the backrooms of memory. I was mainly interested in learning how our ancestors thought about and managed birth.
This book is exclusively about the medical history of birthing in the western world, predominantly, since the 21st century. But the author does not fail in weaving relevant social, religious and economic history to the medical history. It was educating to learn about how birthing is as much a natural biological process as it is a cultural process.
As old as human beings and in spite of all medical advancements and understanding birthing still remains a mysterious process. Neither culture nor medicine was able to get a manageable hand over birthing, evident by the cultural and medical fads that come and go. Birthing choices are influenced by culture as much as economics and politics. Generations upon generations seem to be at confusion about birthing - and it seems this confusion will perpetuate.
I had a vague idea that birthing is complicated and complex, at least from a biological perspective, never did it suspect that these complications are multilayered and span a wide range of institutions. I never thought birthing was an institutional thing at all!
Profile Image for Andrea.
374 reviews21 followers
June 19, 2014
When we were trying to decide which book to read for book club this month, a friend brought this one up. I thought (and said out loud) what a perfect book for a bunch of women to discuss! Women (who have been pregnant and given birth) really love to talk about pregnancy and giving birth. And I was right, it was a highly successful book club discussion. Every part of this book was so interesting. It was so amazing to learn about all the ways women have given birth throughout history. I felt a little guilty though, all four of my births were induced, at a hospital, with a male doctor, with an epidural. And according to all the statistics the safest way to give birth is at home with a midwife. Haha, oh well, after reading this I'm glad I was able to have my babies at this point in history. I delivered them exactly the way I wanted to. Really really good book, so much information, I'm amazed at the research that went into writing it.
Profile Image for Emily Trettel.
88 reviews5 followers
June 11, 2021
A prurient overview of some salacious topics. This is not a text on the anthropology of childbirth so much as a Ripley's Believe It Or Not of horrors. The book obsesses over craniotomies, pre-anesthesia cesarean sections, twilight sleep but little interest in the cultural practices of birthing and only a very cursory summary of the evolution of modern obstetrics. It also repeatedly blames mothers, rather than the medical field, for various medical malpractices, from insisting that doctors didn't really want to offer twilight sleep but misguided feminists demanded it and takes the "too posh to push" theory seriously as a cause for the cesarean epidemic. The book is casually political (on issues such as bottle vs. breast, homebirth, and birth plans) with light sourcing and claiming to be historical, not political. 
Profile Image for Nicole.
68 reviews3 followers
April 8, 2009
This non fiction book was an easy read with each subject usually just a couple pages long. The subjects included primitive birthing tools to caesarean section history to birthing positions. It is written somewhat like a book report with all the information coming from noted sources. It seemed the author wished to remain objective, but it would have been helpful to have more information. For example, a statistic like "4 in 1000 water births result in death," would have been more helpful if information was given on how many die in labor lying down, or squatting labor, etc. If there, I missed them. I found it scary to realize that although there has been progress, there is still a lot of grey area on the "best" methods/tools/positions to birth. An interesting read!
Profile Image for Christine.
28 reviews
July 26, 2012
Fascinating and horrifying at parts. Not for the faint of stomach, or anyone who is currently pregnant (it's pretty gory at parts - includes mental pictures you don't want in your head if you're trying to visualize a positive birth). The chapter on c-sections - yikes! It took me a while to stop thinking about the non-anesthetized symphysectomy. It's hard to imagine surviving that procedure let alone living with the medical aftermath. The things that women have had to endure throughout history to have their babies have been pretty scary; I'm glad to have had my baby in the 21st Century (though I'm sure in the future people will look back and criticize some of the things we currently do for birth).
Profile Image for Beth.
37 reviews
June 23, 2009
Really interesting history of the horrors of birth. I read it at 8-9 months pregnant and it just made it more clear that I wanted to follow my birth plan and not let the dr/hostpital intervene if possible. I had been thinking about a home birth and this book didn't really sway me one way or the other. I thought it would. It just uncovered the history of the birthing experience. My only gripe is that it doesn't focus enough on modern birth experiences. I would have liked a bit more discussion on how women today can influence the c-section rate and their own birth experience...as well as some discussion on insurance plans and ridiculous charges/policies.
Profile Image for Tara.
25 reviews1 follower
May 5, 2013
I thought this book was great! Yes, there were some descriptions of horrifying practices that were used but those things are no longer done and as a pregnant woman at almost 7 months and getting ready for labor, the book didn't scare me so much as make me grateful for how far we have come. Also, the book was incredibly interesting! I rarely read non-fiction but I could not put this down and while reading I was sharing info with my husband who then became so anxious to read it that he was often reading over my shoulder because he couldn't wait for me to finish it. I highly recommend this book!
Profile Image for Kristen.
48 reviews10 followers
August 11, 2008
The book was full of interesting facts. I learned a lot about the birthing process. I enjoyed learning about the cultural diffrences. I think my husband it grateful I am moving on to a new book. Will prob. reread when I have am pregnant. Gave it three stars because while it was a good book and very interesting I did not enjoy it as much since I have no children and the subject matter scares me.
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