Randi Hutter Epstein, M.D.
I'm so pleased to share a recent interview with Dr. Randi Hutter Epstein, who is the author of Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank.
I truly enjoyed your book and am so glad you joined us today to tell us more.
What prompted you to explore the history of childbirth?
While I’ve always been fascinated with childbirth stories (I have four children), the real reason I focused on obstetric history is because I’ve always been drawn towards, what I like to call, the gray zone of medicine. That’s the place where there are no definitive answers and doctors and patients make decisions based on a combination of medical information, their own beliefs, and gut feelings. You can say that goes for a lot of medical fields but I believe this so-called gray zone is much larger, or grayer, in obstetrics. First, the patients are healthy which creates an intense doctor-patient dynamic. Secondly, many women have an idea of the kind of birth they have always imagined. Also, as I started to explore I found that the history of childbirth is chock full of wacky advice, eccentric doctors and bizarre experiments.
It seems that today, we are flooded with all kinds of advice books. Was it much easier for our great-great-grandmothers who could give birth without this confusing mass of books?
I was shocked when I discovered that birth-advice manuals are not a thing of modern times. Even before there were books, there were birth-advice papyri. I like to say that every single woman on earth—besides Eve, who had no mothers, friends or sisters telling her what to do—has been bombarded with all kinds of words-of-wisdom about how to conceive, how to stay pregnant, and how to make perfect babies.
Are there any childbirth themes that seem constant throughout history?
Yes. For one, as I’ve mentioned women have always been flooded with advice. But secondly, we have always tried to control this inevitably uncontrollable process. Whether we are drinking red wine, or sniffing spices, or shopping for the perfect sperm, somehow we want to figure out precisely what we can do to make the ideal offspring.
Many people have said that the history of childbirth is a history of men doing things to women. Would you agree?
Absolutely not. The history of childbirth is a history of women and the complicated relationships we have had with our physicians, male and female. Even years ago, when doctors were mostly men and had more power, there were women who were demanding that childbirth be handled in a certain way, for better and for worse. Women at the turn of the 20th century insisted that doctor give them drugs to knock them out because it was their right not to remember childbirth. Later on, in the 1970s, women insisted that doctors withhold drugs because it was their right to experience delivery. We women are not passive victims and we never have been.
So you are saying that women have controlled the history of childbirth?
Not exactly. I am saying that the story is much more complex than the medical establishment dictating everything. Sometimes we have been swayed by our physicians, but our physicians are also swayed by us and by contemporary society. And that’s what made this such a fun story to investigate.
What was your favorite reporting day?
While I love delving into the archives of libraries, my favorite day was in an embryology lab. I had the opportunity to watch a physician retrieve eggs from a woman and then watch as the embryologist mix an egg with sperm. “We’re making a baby!” I cried. To which, the staid embryologist replied, “We are not making a baby. We are just mixing the samples.” (Well, I was watching millions of sperm race to the egg—sperm that we dumped near the egg. I’d say we helped make that baby. It was a thrill.)
Thank you Dr. Epstein!
For anyone who would like to learn more, please visit Dr. Epstein's website at:
Randi Hutter Epstein