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Before describing the imagined horrors of genetically altered dinosaurs, Michael Crichton witnessed the real horrors of scopolamine births.

Yes, the author of Jurassic Park was actually a natural birth proponent. It goes back to his medical school days when they were still doing scopolamine births.

Remember that episode of Mad Men  where Betty goes to the hospital and gives birth to Gene with scopolamine? Yeah, that was sanitized for TV audiences. But back to the guy who wrote Jurassic Park

Crichton wanted to be a writer, but figured he’d need a “day job”. So he went to Harvard Medical School in the 1960’s. One of the teaching hospitals surrounding Harvard Medical School at the time was called Boston Lying In Hospital. They delivered babies there. This was a transitional period in obstetrics and BLI was offering a couple of different medication options for mothers from scopolamine to nothing. But it’s not what you might imagine. In his autobiography Travels, Crichton described the scopolamine ward thus:

“On my first day at the BLI, I stepped into a world that reminded me of nothing so much as Dante’s Inferno. Room after room filled with women, all twisting and writhing in rubber-sheeted beds like oversized baby bassinets, all shrieking at the top of their lungs in the most hideous agony. I was appalled. It was like something from the nineteenth century. From the eighteenth century.”

Yeah, January Jones and Matthew Weiner weren’t going to go quite that far into realism. And I don’t blame them. But guess who was getting the scopolamine?

“Yeah, well, these women are all on scope,” the resident said. “They all insist on it. They come in the door and, the very first thing, they go, Give me the shot. So we scope ’em.” Scopolamine, famed in World War II movies as truth serum, was a soporific drug. But, as the resident explained, it wasn’t a painkiller at all. “That’s why they’re screaming so much. Scope’s not a painkiller.” “Then what’s the point?” “The point is, it’s an amnesiac. They’re having the pain, but they won’t remember any of it when it’s over.” And a good thing, I thought, watching them twist and scream and shriek. Many of them had to be tied down to the bed with restraining straps. “You gotta watch how you tie ’em down, because you don’t want ’em waking up with bruises on their wrists. But if you don’t tie ’em down, they’ll bang around and hurt themselves, pull out their IVs, all sorts of stuff.” I felt embarrassed for these women. Many were wealthy and elegant: carefully applied makeup, coiffed hair, manicured nails. Now they were tied down to a rubber hamper and swearing and screaming, utterly out of control. I felt like an intruder, seeing something I should not see. “Why do you do this?” I asked. “They insist on it. You tell ’em this is what happens, you show ’em, even—they go, I don’t care, give me the shot.” I kept looking at the nurses, trying to see how they felt about it. They were women, too. But the nurses were blank-faced, neutral. As far as they were concerned, this was how it was. “Isn’t there another way?”

I think we’re beginning to see why fathers weren’t allowed in the delivery room for a few decades. So next up we move to the epidural ward.

“Oh sure,” the resident said. Down the hall were more rooms. No rubber bassinets here, just ordinary hospital beds with women panting and groaning, with the occasional cry of pain. Most of the beds had IV lines hanging from them. “Now, here, these women get an epidural, a slow spinal drip, for pain. And they maybe get a little Demerol, and they just work with the pain.” It seemed much better here, much more human.

This is a little more like what we’re accustomed to. But the next part is where things get really interesting… 

“Down there,” the resident said, “is where we have the girls from the Home.” “The Home?” “The unwed mothers,” he said, and named the home where they came from. We walked down there. “You gotta keep an eye on the nurses here,” he said. “If you’re not careful, they won’t give the girls anything for pain at all. Sometimes they let ’em get all the way to the delivery room with nothing at all. Sort of punishment for their sins.” I expressed disbelief. I was back in Dante’s hell. “Yeah, well, it’s Boston,” the resident said. We went into this room. It was incredibly tranquil. Four or five teenage girls, panting and breathing and counting contractions. Only one nurse to attend them, and she was out of the room a lot. Some of the girls were having a great deal of pain, and they looked frightened, to be alone, experiencing this pain. I stayed in the room with them.”

Crichton felt a great respect and care for one of the girls delivering there that day. Her name was Debbie. 

“Debbie had read a lot of books about childbirth, and she told me how the baby developed in the uterus, how at first it was like a pinhead but then a couple of months later there was a beating heart and everything. She told me about breaking water and about contractions and how you had to breathe with the pain; she and the other girls had practiced the breathing. She knew they weren’t going to give her painkillers. She had heard that. The nuns had told her. From time to time as we talked, she would stop to go through the contractions. She asked to hold my hand during the contractions, and she would squeeze it hard. Then she would let go, until the next time. Debbie explained that the girls talked a lot about keeping their babies, that most of them wanted to keep them, but a lot of the girls wouldn’t be fit mothers in Debbie’s opinion. She herself wanted to keep her baby, but she knew she couldn’t, because her father would never allow it, and anyway she had to go back to school. “Can I have your hand again?” Another set of contractions. She looked at the wall clock. She told me they were only three minutes apart. It wouldn’t be too long now, she said. I talked to some of the other girls in the room. They were all the same, all right there with the pains, paying attention, going through it. Most of them said they didn’t want to see the baby after it was born: they were afraid that it would be too hard if they saw the baby. They were experiencing intense physical pain, and they were talking about intense emotional pain, but they were all right with it. They all had a calmness and a dignity.

Maybe you’re thinking what I’m thinking: Debbie might have been a great midwife. At least if midwives were a thing in the 1960’s outside of communes.

But it was a huge contrast. The unwed mothers having natural childbirths and the wealthy socialites having their scopolamine…

Meanwhile, back in the high-class rooms, the private patients, the respectable married women were strapped down in rubber beds, swearing like sailors, screaming their heads off. It didn’t make any sense to me. The people who were being punished were having the best experience. The people who were being indulged were having the worst experience. I saw my first delivery. It was, on the one hand, just like what I expected. And, on the other hand, to see the little head appear, and then the little body, immediately transported you to some other reality. It wasn’t a medical procedure; it was a miracle. I walked around in a daze. I saw several more deliveries. I couldn’t get used to the feeling. I was floating. I went back to the room with the girls from the Home. It was still peaceful; the girls still panting, alone.

One Comment on “Michael Crichton, Natural Birth Proponent

  1. Pingback: Myth, Magic and… Public Health? – Birth Multiverse

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