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Why women said ‘no’ to anesthesia

Illustration of a woman using a chloroform inhaler (1858)Wellcome Library

Last week I wrote about the rise of anesthesia in the 19th century, and specifically how Queen Victoria popularized the use of anesthesia in childbirth.

But a question comes up: why did it take a celebrity endorsement? Why wouldn’t someone want to reduce the pain of childbirth?

Every new idea faces obstacles, and the big one here was obvious: Women and their doctors were concerned with the risks of an unproven medical procedure. But there were more secondary obstacles than you might imagine, and next month at the annual meeting of the American Society of Anesthesiologists, two local doctors, Rachel Meyer and Sukumar Desai of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, will give a presentation on “resistance to acceptance of anesthesia in the mid-19th century.”


Poring over journal articles, newspapers, books, and personal notes, they found that beyond the medical risks, these were the most common reasons women or their doctors resisted using anesthesia:

- Biblical passages that stated childbirth is meant to be painful

- Social norms around modesty, and the impropriety of being unconscious in a room full of men

- The Temperance movement, which opposed intoxicants like ether for recreational and medical use alike

- Geographic rivalries. Anesthesia was pioneered in Boston, and Meyer and Desai found that Philadelphia doctors in particular resisted using it for territorial reasons.

Today, epidurals are still a matter of some debate, though now the conversation is mostly about whether they increase outcomes like C-section rates. And you can picture the uproar in a labor and delivery room if instead of providing an epidural, a doctor replied with, “To the woman He said, ‘I will greatly multiply Your pain in childbirth; in pain you will bring forth children.’ ”

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at