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Dora Calott Wang's picture

Here’s a book recommendation for MomsRising readers.  “Get Me Out:  A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank,”(W.W. Norton, $15.95 paperback) by Randi Hutter-Epstein, M.D., is a witty, entertaining work of medical history that also provides practical information that new mothers will find valuable.  Dr. Hutter-Epstein is not only a physician and medical journalist, but she’s the mom of four kids.

“Get Me Out” is full of truth-is-stranger-than-fiction tales.  To get pregnant, Catherine de Medici, France’s sixteenth-century queen, was advised to drink mare’s urine, and to soak her privates in cow manure and ground stag’s antlers.  In nineteenth century New York, post-partum women aired out their genitals on the hospital rooftop, high above Manhattan. 

The book abounds with fascinating characters.  We meet England’s Chamberlen family, who for 200 years beginning in the 1500’s, were renowned for their ability to safely deliver babies thanks to a secret family tool—forceps.  In pre-Civil War United States, surgeon Marion Sims took ten postpartum slave women into his backyard, and by gruesome experimentation on their genitals, cured one of childbirth’s most horrible side effects—vaginal rips that caused women to leak urine and feces, and to thus be outcast for the rest of their lives.  This disabling postpartum condition is still common in developing countries, but no longer exists in the west, thanks to the anonymous slave women, and to Dr. Sims.  We meet Berkeley mom and activist Pat Cody, who took on the powerful drug companies that manufactured DES (diethylstilbestrol), a synthetic hormone given to millions of women as a pregnancy enhancer, but which instead caused cancer and birth defects for children exposed in utero.  We get a personal glimpse of sperm bank proprietor Dr. Cappy Rothman, who lives in a home decorated with penis sculptures, and whose California Cryobank has a masturbatorium wallpapered with porn.

The quest for healthier, pain free childbirth is one of the book’s many storylines.  In the Garden of Eden, Eve cheated on her diet with an apple, as the author’s version of the tale goes.  In this manner, the first woman incurred the sentence of painful childbirth for all women.  Virtue and painful childbirth were so synonymous that in 1591 Scotland, Eufame Maclayne was burned at the stake for requesting pain relief while birthing twins.  Only in the early 1900’s did pain relief in childbirth become socially acceptable, reflecting a time when women discarded their corsets and danced without chaperones.  Lithuanian immigrant Lane Bryant (nee Lina Himmelstein) started the first line of maternity wear.  “Twilight Sleep,” became a fad in which upper class American women traveled to Germany to undergo birthing while knocked out by morphine and sedatives.  Backlash begat the freebirthers movement, and later, Lamaze.

“Get Me Out” also offers cautionary tales about technology and pregnancy.  In the 1930’s, X-rays were a routine part of prenatal exams.  Even after fetal X-ray exposure was linked to leukemia in 1956, prenatal X-rays continued for another 20 years.  Dr. Hutter-Epstein uses the example of X-rays to provide a context for the widespread use of prenatal ultrasounds today.  “We must not forget that it took nearly half a century for the damaging effects of X-rays upon the fetus in utero to come to light,” cautions Ian Donald, the very obstetrician who pioneered fetal ultrasound.

“Get Me Out” indeed covers a lot of ground.  Several storylines could have been better developed.  But altogether, this is a commendable book, readable yet rigorous, written by a woman with the unusual qualifications of medical journalist, mom, and an editor of the Yale Journal of Humanities and Medicine.

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