When we say someone has had a “natural birth,” what do we mean? The Natural Childbirth movement usually supports the idea that, if properly prepared, women are innately able to give birth without routine medical interventions. However, this idea of ability should be understood in its context; women have been giving birth without modern medical intervention for many centuries—but that does not mean they gave birth all alone and without help. Human birth is complicated and dangerous, and our offspring are larger in proportion to our bodies and yet more helpless than many other mammals. As a result, birth has been “mediated” for most of our history, meaning that someone helps, supports, or intervenes in some way during the process.
This mediation has changed dramatically through the ages. As depicted on the timeline, sometimes help came from family members, sometimes from friends, sometimes from people who were trained as midwives. They used smoke, herbs, oils, amulets, prayers, and more to ease the baby’s passage. Sometimes only a few people were present; at other times, it seemed a veritable crowd gathered around the birth scene. Childbirth has been an ever-changing practice, but some of the greatest occurred closer to our own age, with the advent of instruments like forceps. As a result, we have begun this exhibit in the 18th century, when traditional female midwives were replaced by medical men and their “interventions.” Some of the arguments against the man-midwives would sound familiar to those supporting the present-day “natural birth” movement!