Updating the sexist claim that pain is good for women

woman in labor

The blogosphere is abuzz with the news that Midwifery Professor Denis Walsh has declared that labor pain is good. According to the Daily Mail:

In an article for Evidence Based Midwifery, published by the Royal College of Midwives, Dr Walsh said the NHS was too quick to give in to requests for pain-killing injections.

He said: “A large number of women want to avoid pain, but more should be prepared to withstand it. Pain in labour is a purposeful, useful thing which has a number of benefits, such as preparing a mother for the responsibility of nurturing a newborn baby.”

Dr. Walsh recycles an entirely fabricated claim:

[Epidurals] also led to lower rates of breast-feeding. He added: “Emerging evidence showsthat normal labour and birth prime the bonding areas of the mother’s brain more than Caesarean or pain-free birth.”

The belief that pain in labor is beneficial has a long and sordid history. A large body of scientific literature shows that women’s pain (of any kind) is much less likely to be taken seriously than men’s pain.

The Girl Who Cried Pain: A Bias Against Women in the Treatment of Pain (Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, 29 (2001): 13–27) provides a disturbing description of the ways in which the pain of women is systematically devalued, disbelieved and undertreated.

…Women who seek help are less likely than men to be taken seriously when they report pain and are less likely to have their pain adequately treated…

The study by McCaffery and Ferrell of 362 nurses and their views about patients’ experiences of pain found that while most of the nurses (63 percent) agreed that men and women have the same perception of pain, 27 percent thought that men felt greater pain than women… The same study also found that almost half of the respondents (47 percent) thought that women were able to tolerate more pain than men …

These erroneous attitudes are particularly prevalent in regard to childbirth:

Bendelow found that “the perceived superiority of capacities of endurance is double-edged for women — the assumption that they may be able to ‘cope’ better may lead to the expectation that they can put up with more pain, that their pain does not need to be taken so seriously.” Crook and Tunks point to the influence of the psychoprophylaxis movement in the United States with its implicit assumption that it is good to experience childbirth without the aid of analgesia… [A]ccording to the authors, “these attitudes imply that we have a value system … that suggest women should be encouraged to keep a stiff upper lip.”

The authors believe that people discount women’s expressions of pain.

A deeper examination of why women are treated this way is explored by several feminist authors. They attribute it to a long history within our culture of regarding women’s reasoning capacity as limited and of viewing women’s opinions as “unreflective, emotional, or immature.” In particular, in relation to medical decision-making, women’s moral identity is “often not recognized…”

…These findings are consistent with studies reporting that female pain patients are less likely than their male counterparts to be taken seriously or are more likely to receive sedatives than opioids for the treatment of their pain.

It is not a coincidence that the philosophy of “natural” childbirth was promulgated by men steeped in the ethos that women’s pain was not worthy of serious consideration. Their claims that women can and should manage childbirth pain through psychological means, that women are “empowered” by pain or that the pain is “beneficial” are simply elaborate justifications for not acknowledging and not treating the pain of women.

Walsh’s claims are just the 21st Century version of the willingness to dismiss the pain of women. He has dressed up his claims in scientific jargon to make them more palatable to a more sophisticated audience, but there is no scientific basis for his claims. There’s NO scientific evidence that unmedicated childbirth is better, safer, healthier or superior in any way than childbirth with pain relief. And the claim about endorphins and bonding is entirely fabricated; it was made up by Michel Odent.

Walsh is merely the latest update in an endless string of men (and sometimes women) who discount, dismiss and disbelieve women’s suffering. The original reaction was to claim that pain was all in a woman’s head; the updated version is to claim that if she cared about her baby and herself she would gladly embrace the pain and be a better mother and woman for the experience.

Curiously, no one has been able to find a form of male pain that supposedly benefits men. I suspect that it is more than mere coincidence that the only pain that is supposedly beneficial is pain that only women can experience.