Immaculate Deception Critical Essays

Suzanne Arms


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Immaculate Deception situates contemporary childbirth in a broad historical context. In tribal agrarian cultures, Arms suggests, childbirth was not necessarily a fear-ful experience for women, because they lived face to face with all the processes of natural life. Birth, death, and reproduction had not yet become clandestine. Because childbirth was so mysterious to men, however, societies in which men were not allowed to witness the miracle often saw the development of peculiar male fantasies about its nature. Men’s ambivalent fear and wonder thus led to attempts to gain control over the creative powers of women. Perhaps the most notorious of these is the curse in Genesis 3:16, where Eve is cursed to suffer in bringing forth children. This began the long trajectory of the Judeo-Christian self-fulfilling expectation of pain in childbirth.

With Christianity vanished any empiricism that the Greco-Roman tradition had brought to medicine. Pain became a matter of divine will or diabolic action, so that male religious authority moved in on childbirth. Midwives were identified with witches, with lethal results. Male barber-surgeons began to perform crude obstetrics. The Catholic church gathered sick and dying people, together with laboring women, into the early Christian hospitals, which became centers of massive dissemination of infectious diseases, especially childbed fever. The death rate in these “charity” hospitals was staggering; the possibility of labor and delivery in one of these virtual charnel houses greatly added to women’s fear of childbirth. Into this atmosphere of helpless (and quite reasonable) terror came the invention of the...

(The entire section is 682 words.)