Natural Childbirth: A Communist Plot?

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.

Paula A. Michaels is a Senior Lecturer at Monash University (Melbourne, Australia). An historian of medicine and health, she is the author of numerous articles and two award-winning books: Lamaze: An International History (2014) and Curative Powers: Medine and Empire in Stalin's Central Asia (2003).