Did a couple of pioneering obstetricians secretly murder dozens of pregnant women in the name of science? Lindsay makes the compelling case for “Not bloody likely”. These kinds of revisionist histories that postulate all sorts of fantastical theories without much evidence are all over the place, with some of the most famous being people who second guess the Jack the Ripper case, or claim Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare, or that Lizzy Borden was framed. By and large, they are complete bullshit. and most of them are of little concern. But this one gave me pause, for the reason that Lindsay alludes to:
This story has all the makings of an anti-science urban legend. Regardless of the quality of the underlying research, this story is going to get embellished in the retelling and used to bash scientific medicine.
Now, when people go off on anti-science hysterics, it’s often really selective, and they usually have ulterior motives. Global warming denialists, creationists, people who float misinformation about abortion and contraception, and other right wing opponents to sound science tend to care mostly about things that smack of modernism or liberalism. But there’s more than a whiff of anti-science sentiment on the left, as well (particularly with anti-vaxxers). In all cases, anti-science thinking tends to flare up dramatically when women’s sexual health is concerned. And when people are on an anti-science stampede, they are eager to use smears and allegations against perceived “fathers” of a field in order to discredit the field. For instance, creationists are willing to smear Charles Darwin in order to discredit evolutionary theory, even though biology has grown way past Darwin’s initial theories, and the discrediting of his character, whether true or not, has no relevance to how right he was or what he started. Similarly, claims that Margaret Sanger was a eugenicist—some true, some overblown—don’t really change the facts on the ground about the usefulness, safety, or efficacy of birth control. And because people who object to contraception and evolutionary theory don’t have science on their side, they resort to replacing arguments with slams on these long-dead people.
The move towards midwifery is associated more with the left than the right, and that’s actually a misunderstanding of the situation, and one that could have potential problems down the road. I don’t have a problem with midwifery in the slightest; I think that it is an inexpensive, mostly safe option that could replace a lot of overly expensive birthing situations, if used properly in conjunction with a hospital. But sometimes there’s more than a whiff of zealotry that occurs when a group is feeling put upon, and nowadays you see women feeling guilt tripped if they want pain relief, or thinking they failed if they have a C-section. To make the situation even uglier, the right has gotten involved, and bringing with it arguments about what’s “natural” that come straight out of the anti-contraception movement. If you go to Focus on the Family to watch the video interview with Tim Tebow’s parents that the ad was directing people to, you get more than a hint of this, when Pam Tebow talks about avoiding most prenatal care, with the implication being that it was the best way to respect god’s will. A lot of people, left and right, are deeply invested in the idea that natural is always better, and those conditions make a direct assault on the practice of obstetrics something that could totally happen. Even though obstetrics is a major reason that our maternal mortality rate isn’t a lot higher.
Tucked into a story about these doctors supposedly murdering patients is a theme: that women didn’t die of childbirth before doctors got involved. And that’s just not true. It is true that doctors weren’t especially helpful at first, because they didn’t know what they were doing (in many cases they made it worse before it got better), but medical interventions were mostly developed and in many cases are effective because dying in childbirth is very common if women don’t get proper treatment. I have no idea if smuggling that assumption is was the reason to float this conspiracy theory, but it does concern me that this reading is there.
Not to say that I think that inquiries into the practices of doctors shouldn’t be mounted, but they need to be done with science on your side and an open mind, and there’s no place for methods like referring to this kind of speculation to confuse the issue.