Seven hundred years ago, a Spanish doctor named Arnold of Villanova wanted to make a baby. He put semen in a womb-shaped vase and waited. The result was disappointing.
We can shake our head at the naivete of believing sperm contains teeny-tiny human beings just needing the proper place to grow. But physician and medical journalist Randi Hutter Epstein is here to tell us in Get Me Out, her engrossing survey of the history of childbirth, that even with all of today's whiz-bang technology, "We are still in the dark about so many things that go into making babies."
Writing that pregnancy has always been "a wonderful blend of custom and science," Epstein takes us on a delightful romp through past guides that are filled with a whole lot of do-this-but-avoid-that advice. "You've got to be kidding me" will be the reaction to most of it. For instance, on the recommendation of a folk healer, 16th century French queen Catherine de Medici drank mare's urine and soaked in cow manure in order to get pregnant.
Epstein writes, "Birth from antiquity through the Middle Ages was an all-girls affair orchestrated by men who had never seen a baby born. It was considered obscene for a man to enter the delivery room, yet they wrote the guidebooks, doling out advice based on hunches handed down over generations."
The history of childbirth is filled with grief as well as joy, and not all the stories amuse. I shuddered at the descriptions of medieval C-sections, American slaves used as gynecological guinea pigs and the horrific effects of synthetic estrogen given to pregnant women in high doses from the late 1930s to the early '70s.
The author raises questions about the moral, legal and medical consequences of the growing — and little regulated — fertility industry. The description of doctors watching over frozen, sperm-filled vials echoes, however faintly, the story of Arnold of Villanova and his vase. Childbirth has come a long way since that experiment, but perhaps not as far as we'd like to think.