The Politics of Pain

Over the past couple of months I’ve been doing extensive, informal research on the birthing options available to me here in Florence, not to mention that whole process in general, of which I hitherto knew very little about.

My own politics and beliefs are very much centred on the freedom of choice, and in turn a respect for everyone else’s personal beliefs and choices. I really try hard not to judge others and am therefore quite averse to taking sides. Shades of grey very much define my perspective on the world. And while I might come to believe in something with great passion, forcing someone else to believe it is anathema to me.

So I was rather troubled to discover that when it comes to relieving a woman’s pain during labour, many hospitals in Italy don’t even give women any choice in the matter. While I felt instinctually, without knowing all that much about it yet, that I wanted to at least try for a natural birth, the idea that I couldn’t even have the option of pain relief if I wanted it really rankled me. Indeed, my doctor visibly bristled when I brought up the subject of an epidural. She told me with a hint of disapproval in her voice that there was only one hospital here that administers it (Torregalli in Scandicci), so if that’s what I want, I’ll have no choice but to give birth there. (Strangely, I have since found out that’s not true, and that they also give you the option at Ponte a Niccheri in Bagno a Ripoli.)

I was really surprised to find out how profoundly discouraged the epidural is here. One American-Italian friend whose wife has given birth twice here (first time natural, second time with epidural) said that Italy is actually fairly far behind the rest of Europe when it comes to its use. His (Italian) wife too encountered great resistance when, after the traumatic experience of her epidural-free first birth, she insisted on arranging for pain relief for the second one.

What was even more fascinating to me was how Italy seemed to fall outside the divide that exists in the English-speaking world between those who are pro natural birth and those who are pro medicalized birth. While I have since learned that there are lot more “Anglos” like me who fall somewhere in between, a really strong perception persists among us that people who are pro natural are also candle-and-incense-burning, new-age hippy home-birth types. Here in Italy, on the other hand, it sounded initially to me like the doctors and hospitals themselves were actually pro natural! Upon further investigation, however, I found out that wasn’t exactly the case either. It turns out that Italy also boasts the second highest rate of cesarean sections in the world, after Brazil. So there goes that intriguing possibility.

What is up, then, with the whole anti-epidural thing? The most convincing theory I’ve heard so far is the idea that it’s tied to Italy’s identity as the heart of Catholicism, according to which we women must suffer the pain of labour because of Eve’s horrible flub in the garden. Yikes. Talk about misogyny.

With Italy being the intensely paradoxical country that it is, we also have this perplexing dynamic of its being both pro and anti labour pain. Because the latter is what the crazy-high cesarean-section rate is all about. Though that is also tied to another depressing, archly anti-feminist aspect of this society: the obsessive cult of young female beauty. Remember the only country with a higher rate is Brazil, and think about what these two countries have in common. One of the advantages of arranging to have a cesarean, for example, is that you can also book in a tummy-tuck right after it. So creepy and sad.