Medical journalist Epstein provides a sharp, sassy history of childbirth.
The book is as much a study in sociology as historical snapshot of human birthing practices and gynecological advances, with particular emphasis on developments in the late 19th- and 20th-century United States. Beginning with Eve, who “started the whole birth-is-painful thing,” and concluding in the present with couples “who sperm-shop and freeze eggs for one reason or another,” Epstein convincingly demonstrates that the human desire to control all aspects of birth has been “a goal since antiquity.” The author covers several centuries’-worth of wildly divergent birthing customs and practices. From the earliest books on women’s health, written by monks, to childbed fever being spread by health practitioners and birthing wards, to early-20th-century feminists arguing that upper-class women had weaker physiologies than their working-class sisters, to the staggering statistic that C-section rates in America have risen 46 percent in the past ten years with no corresponding drop in maternal mortality, Epstein ably investigates the charged, ever-evolving scientific and social perspectives on birth. The author’s engaging sarcasm, evident even in a caption of an illustration of an absurd obstetric contraption—“Nineteenth-century Italian do-it-yourself forceps. The fad never took off”)—lends this chronicle a welcome punch and vitality often absent from medical histories.
Roll over, Dr. Lamaze, and make room for Epstein’s eyebrow-raising history.