Natural Childbirth: A Communist Plot?

Nursing Clio is happy to have Paula Michaels as a guest author today. Michaels is a Senior Lecturer at Monash University (Melbourne, Australia), where she teaches history and international studies. An historian of Russia and Central Asia, her research explores the intersection of medicine, politics, and society. She is the author of two books: Curative Powers: Medicine and Empire in Stalin’s Central Asia (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003) and Lamaze: An International History (Oxford University Press, 2014).


When All in the Family’s Gloria and Michael Stivic attended childbirth preparation classes in 1975, the Lamaze method seemed as American as apple pie. Each week Mike and Gloria brought into our living rooms the values of the counterculture and second-wave feminism that were redefining middle-class American society. Reflecting these trends in the realm of childbirth, the Lamaze method enjoyed tremendous popularity.

Though natural living and feminist empowerment are not so much at the forefront of our collective cultural conversation, four decades later what childbirth scene in an American television show or movie would be complete without the hee-hee-hee-hoo of Lamaze breathing? (For an example, see Drew Barrymore here.) More surprising than the durability of this iconic image in our cultural landscape is the fact that the Lamaze method was denounced in the 1950s by the founder of the natural childbirth movement as nothing less than a communist plot.

British physician Grantly Dick-Read coined the phrase “natural childbirth” in 1933 and, until his death in 1959, devoted himself to promoting his ideas about how to manage the pain of labor without reliance on drugs. Early on he was the sole purveyor of the notion that prenatal education and relaxation could reduce or even eliminate labor pain, but at the start of 1950s he began to hear of similar ideas coming out of the Soviet Union and promoted in France by an obstetrician named Fernand Lamaze. Known as psychoprophylaxis, this other method had originated with the work of Soviet psychologist I. Z. Vel’vovskii in the Ukrainian city of Kharkov (today, Kharkiv).

British women in an ante-natal class designed by Grantly Dick-Read, 1955. Photo courtesty of Wellcome Library.
British women in an ante-natal class designed by Grantly Dick-Read, 1955. Photo courtesy of Wellcome Library.

Vel’vovskii’s psychoprophylaxis had much in common with Dick-Read’s natural childbirth, but drew on Nobel Prize-winning neuropsychologist Ivan Pavlov’s concept of conditional response to explain how it worked. Prenatal education and conditioning would enable women to greet the involuntary uterine contractions of labor with muscular relaxation. The patterned breathing that we associate with the Lamaze method was used to distract from any pain, to facilitate relaxation, and to resist the impulse to push prematurely.

Ferdinand Lamaze
Ferdinand Lamaze

With its striking similarity to his own method, Dick-Read mocked the breathing technique as “merely frills” and condemned Lamaze as an instrument of Soviet propaganda and plagiarism. Women, however, cared only about what worked and, with its invocations of Pavlovian psychology, they perceived psychoprophylaxis to be more scientifically sound than Dick-Read’s method. Decreeing in 1956 that the Catholic Church approved of both Dick-Read’s natural childbirth and Vel’vovskii’s and Lamaze’s psychoprophylaxis, even the pope didn’t seem to care that it had been developed by godless communists.

Though Dick-Read’s accusations of Soviet plagiarism were unfounded, he was right that ideology featured in psychoprophylaxis’s meteoric rise in France. Having witnessed a birth using psychoprophylaxis in Leningrad in 1951, Dr. Lamaze returned to Paris with a convert’s zeal to revolutionize French childbirth. Communist doctors and hospital administrators received Lamaze’s proposal to promote Soviet psychoprophylaxis as a new front in the Cold War.

Influential players on the postwar political stage, French communists celebrated psychoprophylaxis’ Soviet origins, picking up on Moscow’s assertion that “pain relief in the bourgeois countries is a privilege of the rich; in the Soviet nation, all women . . .  enjoy the benefits of scientific achievement.” They pressed the case that psychoprophylaxis demonstrated the progressive nature of Soviet science and that, like their Soviet sisters, France’s working class women would benefit from Comrade Stalin’s benevolence.

By 1960 psychoprophylaxis was putting down roots in the United States and its American advocates appreciated that psychoprophylaxis’s red taint would not sit well with patriotic Americans. As an early US proponent later described it, they needed to be cautious about the method’s association with the Soviet Union “given how Americans were feeling about Russians.” They had to rebrand psychoprophylaxis and that meant emphasizing the French connection.

The American Society for Psychoprophylaxis in Obstetrics (ASPO), today called Lamaze International, initially described its approach as the “Lamaze-Pavlov method,” but by the mid-1960s Pavlov’s name disappeared from ASPO’s letterhead. Ideology aside, comparisons to panting dogs hardly enticed expectant mothers. Rechristened simply the Lamaze method, psychoprophylaxis’s Soviet roots were obscured, and it was ready to take its place in American history.

Archie Bunker was known for his hatred of communists, hippies, and bra-burning women’s libbers. Had they realized that Gloria’s method of childbirth had ties to all three of this unholy trinity, All in the Family’s writers could surely have milked that story line for even more laughs, but the communist backstory was already well and truly forgotten. So thorough is the amnesia about the Lamaze method’s Soviet origins that when American public health advisors travelled to the Kharkiv in 2006 to help improve maternity care and set about translating literature from Lamaze International into Russian and Ukrainian, they had no idea that they were in Vel’vovskii’s home town, where it had all begun. Local medical workers and public health officials were in no position to bring it to their attention, as Vel’vovskii work had, like the Soviet Union itself, been relegated to the dustbin of history.


Grantly Dick-Read’s fear of breeding communists in the labor room never came to pass, and he would surely have delighted at Vel’vovskii’s slide into obscurity. But it would have been a bitter pill for him to swallow that it is Lamaze’s name and not his own enjoying newfound fame behind the now-vanished Iron Curtain.

About the Author

No Comments

David Harley

Looking at this controversy from the opposite direction, one can see that religion is a key factor. This is not unconnected with Lamaze’s apparently scientific framing of his work, as opposed to Dick-Read’s absence of evidence and contempt for physiological research. Nor is it entirely distinct from the politics.

Moral appeals to Nature are always theological, crypto-theological, or quasi-theological. In matters of childbirth, we can see this in such opponents of the forceps as Elizabeth Nihell, who made this connection explicit and central to her arguments. William Hunter’s deism made the moral appeal less forceful in his writings but still implicit. Hunter wrote of Galen as writing “a prose hymn to the Creator,” and providing “irresistible proofs” of divine Providence as both Cause and Governor. He expatiated at length on how anatomy could not but fill the anatomist, philosopher or theologian with awe for the Creator’s handiwork.

Mary Thomas, the editor of Dick-Read’s correspondence, writes that he sought to unify medicine and theology. For him, “Religion and nature equaled God, while medicine and physiology offered an exercise in controlling women.” (Post-war Mothers, p.12)

For Dick-Read, “healthy childbirth was never intended by the natural law to be painful.” He embraced the longstanding myth of easy and painless childbirth among “primitive” peoples. Obstetricians and midwives were to deliver women “as God intended.” The 3% of women who could not be delivered naturally were outside God’s grace and his own responsibility.

As Ornella Moscucci has noted, “Dick-Read was a social reformer with a strong interest in preventive medicine. He was also a profoundly religious man, fired by an evangelical faith in the spiritual significance of motherhood. Dick-Read believed that childbirth revealed God’s presence in the universe: it was the task of science to render it explicit, by showing the laws of nature that governed the processes of birth. Dick-Read accordingly rejected materialistic and mechanistic interpretations of pregnancy and birth. In their place he developed a theory of childbirth that sought to integrate body and mind, individual and culture. ”
— Postgrad Med J 2003;79:168-173

The difference between Dick-Read and Lamaze was not lost on Pope Pius XII, although he recommended both methods. The English method was less “materialistic,” and therefore preferable for those who want a “Christian delivery.”


Reblogged this on and commented:
Who knew that the Lamaze method was a Communist plot? Paula Michaels at Nuring Clio has written post about the efforts of British physician Grantly Dick-Read to smear the Lamaze method as “an instrument of Soviet propaganda and plagiarism.” Oddly enough, Ferdinand Lamaze was inspired to create his childbirth when he was visiting a Leningrad hospital. Hopefully, Michael’s post does not lead to accusations by certain American news outlets that the Lamaze method is an effort to brainwash Americans, but in today’s world anything is possible.

David Harley

In that article, I find a startling logical fallacy, used as a transition..

Granted that I am taking this paragraph out of context, yet it typifies the article.

Dick-Read was a misogynist because he thought anaesthetics unnecessary.
Natural childbirth is damned as eugenicist.
The origin is contained as the kernel within today’s movement.
The “avatars” are anti-feminist therefore for the same reason, and she subsequently adds venality to the accusation.
Hospital anaesthetists and surgeons are therefore the true feminists, and not venal.

Reminds me of Edward Shorter’s history of women’s bodies. Does she really believe that all the C-sections, episiotomies, epidurals and hysterectomies are medically necessary? If so, why is the success rate so much better in Sweden, where such procedures are rare, than it is in the US, where they are routine?

If positive eugenics, almost universal before the late 1940s, is a damnable origin, we must scrap contraception, because of the roles played by Margaret Sanger and Marie Stopes.

Incidentally, in another blogpost, the same author links the internalized abuse and denigration of women with both natural childbirth and breastfeeding. (“Lactivism”)

I too find the medico-moral rhetoric of the movement/s questionable and often misdirected, but her attack is blisteringly hostile and immoderate, to such an extent that one is driven to wonder about the experiential basis for her viewpoint..

Comments are closed.