Childbirth Throughout the Ages
CHILDBEARING is one of the very oldest of human activities, nearly as old as eating and drinking. It goes back to the day when the first woman Eve brought forth her firstborn son Cain. Being so fundamental to the existence of the human race, childbirth raises interesting questions.
Why, for instance, should such a basically natural function be so painful to the mother? And since in so-called “developed” countries most women give birth in elaborately equipped maternity hospitals, how did women get by in the past?
In the case of Eve there was certainly no highly trained midwife on hand when Cain was born. She seems to have managed quite well alone, or at most with the inexperienced help of her husband Adam. So why all the fuss these days? Could it be that the past contains some valuable lessons for the present day?
Why the Labor Pains?
As to the pains and perils of childbearing, if the theory of evolution were true, there would appear to be no valid reason why human mothers should not bear their young with the same facility as animals. Yet this is obviously not the case. Science has no valid explanation to offer for the great difference between the birth and rearing of animal young and human young.
The Bible alone sheds light on this matter. It shows that difficult childbearing is a direct result of the first woman’s sinning against her Creator, from whom she had received the faculty of procreation. After her rebellion against him, God told Eve: “I shall greatly increase the pain of your pregnancy; in birth pangs you will bring forth children.”—Gen. 3:16.
True, the difficulty experienced by women in childbirth varies according to their physical makeup and the type of existence they lead. Modern preparatory methods for expectant mothers can also alleviate some of the suffering. Nevertheless, millions of women of all races will agree that God’s words to Eve have proved true. How have women throughout the ages faced up to this problem?
Childbirth Among Hebrew Women
Very few passages in the Bible speak of the manner in which womenfolk gave birth in ancient times. Perhaps the most explicit text on this subject is to be found in the first chapter of Exodus. To expedite his genocide program against the Hebrews who had settled in his country, one of Egypt’s Pharaohs gave the following order to the Hebrew midwives: “When you help the Hebrew women to give birth and you do see them on the stool for childbirth, if it is a son, you must also put it to death.” Sometime later, these Godfearing women justified their failure to carry out this murderous plan by saying to the king: “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women. Because they are lively, they have already given birth before the midwife can come in to them.”—Ex. 1:16-19.
From this passage we learn three things: First, that the profession of midwife existed already in those distant times (sixteenth century B.C.E.); second, that women apparently gave birth, not reclining on a bed, but sitting or crouching on some sort of birthstool; and third, that Hebrew women often gave birth without professional assistance, being “lively,” or as other Bible translations say, “hardy” or “vigorous.”—Jerusalem Bible, Revised Standard Version.
The likely posture assumed by Hebrew women for delivery is referred to by Kennett, in his work Ancient Hebrew Social Life and Custom, as follows: “At the birth of a child, the mother was delivered . . . supported on a small stool resembling a potter’s revolving wheel.” The New Bible Dictionary by J. D. Douglas states: “Among the Hebrews women very often crouched down in childbirth upon a pair of bricks or stones.”
As to the excuse of the Hebrew midwives that Hebrew women gave birth before they could arrive, there must have been some truth to it; otherwise the Egyptian tyrant would undoubtedly have had them executed immediately. G. J. Witkowski states: “It seems likely that Jewesses called on [midwives] only for serious cases, and that more often than not they gave birth unassisted.”
However, while the hardworking Hebrew women may generally have had an easier time in childbirth than the more sophisticated Egyptian women, the fact that labor pains are used throughout the Bible as a symbol of inescapable suffering indicates that Hebrew mothers did not escape the pangs and perils of childbirth. (Ps. 48:6; Jer. 13:20-22; 50:43; Mic. 4:9, 10; 1 Thess. 5:3) For example, Jacob’s wife Rachel was attended by a midwife, but “it was going hard with her in making the delivery,” and she died while giving birth to Benjamin. Also, Judah’s daughter-in-law Tamar had a difficult time giving birth to twin boys, and suffered a perineal rupture.—Gen. 35:16-20; 38:27-30.
With regard to postnatal care, we learn about Hebrew methods in a Bible prophecy that speaks figuratively of Jerusalem’s origins. (Ezek. 16:4) According to this passage, first the umbilical cord was severed, then the infant was cleansed by washing, rubbed with salt, probably to strengthen and tighten the skin, and finally bound in cloth bands to maintain warmth. The Hebrew child was generally breast-fed, and was not weaned until two or three years of age, sometimes when the child was older. (1 Sam. 1:24-28) The custom of late weaning is mentioned in the apocryphal book of 2 Maccabees 7:27.
Childbirth in Egypt, Greece and Rome
In ancient times childbirth among the non-Hebrew peoples was enshrouded in mystery and superstition. The Egyptians believed four goddesses attended expectant mothers. These were Isis, Nephthys, Heket and Meshkent.
From the Egyptian hieroglyphics and bas-reliefs, it appears that Egyptian women gave birth either in a squatting or a kneeling position, or sitting on some sort of birth chair. A “Penitential Hymn to a Goddess,” dating from the end of the Egyptian Empire, contains the following phrase: “I sat upon the brick(s) like the pregnant woman.”
As to the Greeks and the Romans, they too were very superstitious about childbirth and worshiped goddesses thought to protect expectant mothers. Greek women invoked Ilithyia, goddess of childbirth, and also the moon goddess Artemis. Ilithyia is, according to one source, “most often depicted kneeling, a position which was believed to aid delivery.”
In ancient Rome, expectant mothers placed themselves under the protection of Juno or Lucina, a moon goddess. Regarding posture in childbirth, De Lalung writes: “Roman women would give birth on a bed, in the semi-reclining position they assumed for eating. . . . For difficult confinements, Soranus of Ephesus [second-century C.E. Greek physician], who practiced in Rome during the reign of Trajan, recommended that the woman should kneel down ‘so as to put the uterus in a better position; stout women should also adopt this posture.’ Like the Greeks, Roman women also gave birth on special, armless chairs.”
Childbirth Among Other Peoples
The story of childbirth among other ancient peoples is much the same as that of the peoples already mentioned. Throughout the Catholic world, the Egyptian Isis, the Greek Ilithyia and the Roman Juno were replaced by “Saint” Margaret of Antioch in Pisidia, known as the “invincible martyr, the hope of pregnant women, the helper in childbirth.” Both this “saint” and the “Virgin Mary” have been invoked by Catholic women in labor, whether queens or paupers. Another superstitious Catholic practice has been to place an “Agnus Dei,” a pope-blessed wax disk, under the pillow of confined women.
As to childbirth postures among the different races and peoples, these have been painstakingly cataloged by the late Dr. George Engelmann, in his classic book Labour Among Primitive People. They cover the whole range from standing up holding onto the branch of a tree to lying flat on a bed, the most popular postures among so-called primitive peoples being the kneeling and squatting positions.
Among the so-called civilized peoples, birth chairs of various shapes and sizes, ranging from V-shaped stools to elaborate armchairs, were popular for centuries. Dr. André Pecker mentions a Historical Medical Museum in London that possesses a collection of no less than thirty-nine different models of birth chairs.
Birth chairs eventually went out of fashion and it became current medical practice in the “developed” countries for a woman to give birth on a bed, lying on her back, flat or reclining, or on her side.
Lessons from the Past
Can anything be learned from this short review of childbirth throughout the ages? After completing his work Labour Among Primitive People, first published in article form in the American Journal of Obstetrics in 1881 and 1882, Dr. George Engelmann came to the conclusion that lying horizontally on the back for delivery was neither the most natural nor the most favorable position for easy childbirth.
In 1937, Dr. Kathleen Vaughan, who had practiced in Egypt, India and Kashmir, published in London a book entitled “Safe Childbirths,” in which she came out in favor of “Natural Posture” in childbirth, by which she meant the crouching position.
In his 1958 book on the history of childbirth, Dr. André Pecker wrote: “As one of our professors used to say, childbearing is essentially a squatting function. This classic fact should have led to the development of appropriate technique, which is instinctive among the primitive peoples.”
In 1971, an Argentine biologist, Dr. Tucho Perrusi, advocated vertical delivery and designed an appropriate delivery chair that apparently is now becoming popular in Argentina. In 1972, Dr. Niles Anne Newton, faculty member of Northwestern University’s medical school, criticized current childbirth practices in the United States, including placing women flat on their backs for delivery, whereas she claims a sitting or squatting position improves delivery.
In an article entitled “Brain Damage by Asphyxia at Birth,” published in the Scientific American of October 1969, William F. Windle wrote:
“Most monkey births occur at night, as is the case with human beings. Labor is short: an hour or less. The female squats and drops the infant on the ground. During delivery most of the blood in the placenta passes to the infant . . . Human infants are born in much the same way in many parts of the world. The woman delivers, often unassisted, in the squatting position, and the infant, being below her, recovers most of the blood from the vessels of the placenta and the umbilical cord. . . . in any delivery it is important to keep the umbilical cord intact until the placenta has been delivered. To clamp the cord immediately is equivalent to subjecting the infant to a massive hemorrhage, because almost a fourth of the fetal blood is in the placental circuit at birth. Depriving the infant of that much blood can . . . contribute to the danger of asphyxial brain damage.
“In advanced countries, of course, the supine [lying on the back] position of delivery is used to enable the attending physician or midwife to observe the birth conveniently and to assist if necessary. The squatting position, in addition to allowing the infant to receive the placental blood from above, . . . avoids compression of the blood vessels supplying the placenta, which occurs in the supine patient when the gravid [pregnant] uterus tilts back against the pelvis. Delivery while the woman is lying on her side, however, can also avoid such compression and prevent the infant’s oxygen supply from being sharply reduced.”
As to breast-feeding, which was a common practice in the past, and still is in many places, a standard French medical work states:
“The food needed by the newborn child is milk, preferably its mother’s milk, which alone is perfectly adapted to its digestive physiology. For lack of being able or willing to feed their child, many mothers replace maternal milk with cow’s milk, modified by themselves or industrially. . . . Breast feeding is a natural, simple and clean method adapted to the infant’s needs, providing it with complete, well-balanced, specific food. The milk is easily and quickly digested, and it contains maternal antibodies that help the child to resist infection. . . . It contributes to the establishing and the tightening of emotional bonds between mother and child. In short, it is the ideal method, too often abandoned on idle pretexts.”
Thus, both as to actual childbirth and postnatal care, some members of the medical profession appear to favor going back to more natural methods. These may alleviate some of the suffering. But, as De Lalung states, “however short it may be, labor, both among the civilized and the uncivilized, is always painful. The Genesis sanction . . . will continue to weigh heavily on the sex that brings us into the world.”
Yes, Genesis 3:16 will continue to be painfully true for women until that happy time when Revelation 21:4 becomes a reality, for then, in his righteous “new earth,” God will progressively “wipe out every tear from [human] eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be anymore.”