Read the rest of Laura Helmuth's series on longevity.
The best person I know almost died in childbirth. We met during college when we both volunteered at a commune in Georgia, the place Habitat for Humanity grew out of. Being a do-gooder was an anomaly for me, but it’s how Gwen has spent her life—she’s wise and kind and generous. She works in a mental health agency for HIV-positive people. When she was seven months pregnant, her diaphragm, the band of muscle that separates the chest from the abdomen, split, and a piece of stomach pushed up through it and necrotized. She went into labor, gave birth to her daughter, and had emergency surgery followed by massive doses of antibiotics. If this had happened even a few decades ago, she and the baby would both be dead. Instead, she’s fine, and her daughter is a wise, kind, generous child who wants to be a scientist.
Bearing a child is still one of the most dangerous things a woman can do. It’s the sixth most common cause of death among women age 20 to 34 in the United States. If you look at the black-box warning on a packet of birth control pills, you’ll notice that at most ages the risk of death from taking the pills is less than if you don’t take them—that’s because they’re so good at preventing pregnancy, and pregnancy kills. The risk flips only after age 35 because birth control pills increase the risk of stroke. (Psst, guys, you know what makes an excellent 35th birthday present for your partner? Getting a vasectomy.)
In the United States today, about 15 women die in pregnancy or childbirth per 100,000 live births. That’s way too many, but a century ago it was more than 600 women per 100,000 births. In the 1600s and 1700s, the death rate was twice that: By some estimates, between 1 and 1.5 percent of women giving birth died. Note that the rate is per birth, so the lifetime risk of dying in childbirth was much higher, perhaps 4 percent.
Evolutionarily, childbirth seems like an exceptionally bad time to die. If by definition the ultimate measure of evolutionary success is reproducing successfully, the fact that women and newborns frequently died in childbirth suggests that powerful selective forces must be at work. Why is childbirth such an ordeal?
Compared to other primates, human infants are born ridiculously underdeveloped; they can’t do much more than suck and scream. They would be better off if they could gestate longer—but the mother wouldn’t be. The classic explanation for why human infants are born at such an early stage of development has to do with anatomical limits on women’s hips. If the fetal head had time to grow any larger in utero, the baby wouldn’t fit through the pelvic girdle. And the pelvic girdle can’t get any wider or women wouldn’t be able to walk efficiently.
This is called the “obstetric dilemma” hypothesis and it’s been dominant for years, but it’s almost certainly wrong, or at least not the full story. Anthropologist Holly Dunsworth and her colleagues found that broadening the pelvis wouldn’t actually interfere with walking, and they point out that gestation is actually pretty long in humans compared to other primates (even though newborns’ brains are relatively less developed). Other researchers suggest that the problem of “obstructed labor”—when a baby basically gets stuck in the birth canal—seems to have become common fairly recently in human history.
The real reason women give birth when they do, Dunsworth says, is that it would take too much energy to feed a fetus for any longer. This is the “metabolic hypothesis” and it’s based on the finding that the maximum metabolic rate people can sustain is about 2 or 2.5 times their standard rate of using energy. During the third trimester, that’s exactly how much metabolic activity the pregnancy demands. Carrying a fetus for those final few months “is like being an incredibly good athlete,” Dunsworth says. No wonder it’s so exhausting.
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By the late stages of pregnancy and during childbirth, almost anything can go wrong. Pregnant women are sapped of energy. They are susceptible to infectious disease. The baby’s head is enormous. Labor takes much longer in humans than in other primates; women often pushed for days. Historically, women died of puerperal fever (also called childbed fever, or postpartum sepsis, an infection usually contracted during childbirth), hemorrhage, eclampsia (dangerously high blood pressure and organ damage; that’s what killed Sybil on Downton Abbey), and obstructed labor.
Given all the dangers, how did deaths in childbirth fall to about one-fiftieth of the historic rate? Life expectancy in the United States and the developed world basically doubled in the past 150 years, and a decrease in maternal mortality is ultimately a big reason for our longer, healthier lives. But the history of childbirth death rates is complicated and disturbing. It’s a story of hubris, mistrust, greed, incompetence, and turf battles that live on today.
The death rate in the overall population started dropping at the end of the 1800s, and it dropped most dramatically during the first few decades of the 20th century. Childbirth deaths were different. They actually increased during the first few decades of the 20th century. Even though pregnant women had less exposure to disease and were more likely to have clean water, proper nutrition, safe food, and comfortable housing than at any previous time in human history, they died in droves in childbed.
It was doctors’ fault.
For most of European and U.S. history, midwives had attended births. Some were incompetent, some were skilled. The best ones wrote and read reports on techniques and treatments, and there’s some evidence they were becoming better trained and having better outcomes during the early 1800s. Doctors had little to do with childbirth—they were all men, and it was considered obscene for a man to be present at a birth.
As the profession of medicine grew during the 1800s, though, doctors started to edge their way into the potentially lucrative business of childbirth. The first ones were general practitioners who had no training and little experience in childbirth. It was considered a low-status specialty and wasn’t taught well or at all in most medical schools.
In the delightfully named book Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank, Randi Hutter Epstein describes the state-of-art treatment: “Before forceps, babies stuck in the birth canal were dragged out by the doctor, often in pieces. Sometimes midwives cracked the skull, killing the newborn but sparing the mother. Sometimes doctors broke the pubic bone, which often killed the mother but spared the baby. Doctors had an entire armamentarium of gruesome gadgets to hook, stab, and rip apart a hard-to-deliver baby. Many of these gadgets had an uncanny resemblance to medieval torture tools.”
The biggest danger to expectant mothers was infection. Before the germ theory of disease, people suspected puerperal fever could somehow be contagious, and they knew that some midwives and doctors had worse records than others, but no one knew how it was transmitted. (“Putrid air” was one popular hypothesis.) To avoid blame for maternal deaths, doctors lied on death certificates—they’d attribute a new mother’s death to “fever” rather than “puerperal fever” or mention hemorrhage without mentioning that the hemorrhage was caused by childbirth.
In the mid-1800s, Ignaz Semmelweis discovered that doctors in his hospital in Vienna were spreading puerperal fever when they went directly from performing autopsies to delivering babies—but his work was mostly ignored. There were many reasons for this: He was apparently a real pill, the methods he suggested for sanitizing the hands were caustic and difficult, and most doctors attending births at home hadn’t been near a corpse. Doctors were also offended by the accusation that their filth was responsible for deadly disease: Gentlemen didn’t have dirty hands.