Did Christians oppose James Simpson on childbirth pain relief?
Refuting an atheopathic myth
Published: 26 March 2020 (GMT+10)
There are a number of myths that atheopaths invoke to justify their hatred of Christianity. Many involve alleged bad things done by the Church (whether or not they are consistent with Christ’s teachings), and in particular, Church opposition to scientific advances.
One is that the Church opposed using anesthesia to alleviate childbirth pain. The use of anaesthesia was pioneered by Scottish doctor Sir James Young Simpson, 1st Baronet (1811–1870), who had a strong record of care for women. For example, like Ignaz Semmelweis, he insisted that doctors washed their hands thoroughly to prevent spread of infection.
However, some today try to argue there was widespread opposition to Simpson based on Genesis 3:16, “To the woman he said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children.” Supposedly pain relief was opposing God’s command. One modern writer falsely claimed:
When 19th-century doctors began using chloroform to alleviate the pain of childbirth, the Scottish Calvinist church declared it a “Satanic invention” intended to frustrate the Lord’s design.1
To get the main point out of the way, we have previously pointed out:
But Jesus’s healing miracles showed the principle that alleviating the effects of the Fall was considered a blessing and the right thing to do—albeit it could only ever be local and temporary. Also, by the opposition’s ‘reasoning’, we should never save lives, cure diseases, or relieve any pain, since all these are equally the results of the Fall.2
But the real history of interaction with childbirth anesthesia is nevertheless instructive—to refute myths, explain biblical teaching, and document that real history is more complex than simple biased soundbites would indicate.
The ‘Warfare’ or ‘Conflict Thesis’ myth
But who actually objected to childbirth pain relief on biblical grounds? It turns out that the claim can be traced to Andrew Dickson White, who claimed in his notorious History of the Warfare of Science with Theology and Christendom (1896) that:
In 1847, James Young Simpson, a Scotch physician, who afterward rose to the highest eminence in his profession, having advocated the use of anæsthetics in obstetrical cases, was immediately met by a storm of opposition. This hostility flowed from an ancient and time-honoured belief in Scotland. As far back as the year 1591, Eufame Macalyane, a lady of rank, being charged with seeking the aid of Agnes Sampson for the relief of pain at the time of the birth of her two sons, was burned alive on the Castle Hill of Edinburgh; and this old theological view persisted even to the middle of the nineteenth century.
From pulpit after pulpit Simpson’s use of chloroform was denounced as impious and contrary to Holy Writ; texts were cited abundantly, the ordinary declaration being that to use chloroform was “to avoid one part of the primeval curse on woman.”‘Simpson wrote pamphlet after pamphlet to defend the blessing which he brought into use; but he seemed about to be overcome, when he seized a new weapon, probably the most absurd by which a great cause was ever won: “My opponents forget,”’he said, “the twenty-first verse of the second chapter of Genesis; it is the record of the first surgical operation ever performed, and that text proves that the Maker of the universe, before he took the rib from Adam’s side for the creation of Eve, caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam.”
This was a stunning blow, but it did not entirely kill the opposition; they had strength left to maintain that the “deep sleep of Adam took place before the introduction of pain into the world—in a state of innocence.” But now a new champion intervened—Thomas Chalmers: with a few pungent arguments from his pulpit he scattered the enemy forever, and the greatest battle of science against suffering was won. This victory was won not less for religion.3
But as usual, White just invented this—and in this case he never even pretended to cite a source, although he would often bluff with copious bogus sources. His book is the origin of much of the christophobic mythology still taught to students, including the myth that the medieval church taught a flat earth, that the opposition to Galileo was mostly religious when in reality it was based on the best science of the day, that the Church banned human dissection, and much more. His work is not taken seriously by historians of science, but the genuine history hasn’t reached the popular science curriculum or popular TV series such as Cosmos by Carl Sagan and the reboot by Neil deGrasse Tyson. E.g. two historians of science explain:
No work—not even John William Draper’s best-selling History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) —has done more than White’s to instill in the public mind a sense of the adversarial relationship between science and religion. His Warfare remains in print to the present day, having appeared also in German, French, Italian, Swedish, and Japanese translations. His military rhetoric has captured the imagination of generations of readers, and his copious references, still impressive, have given his work the appearance of sound scholarship, bedazzling even twentieth-century historians who should know better.4
Similarly, historian of science Lawrence Principe writes:
Refuting White is like shooting fish in a barrel. With his combination of bad sources, argument by assertion, quoting out of context, collectivism, and general reliance on exclamation, rather than evidence and argument, White’s is not a book to be taken seriously. Its real value is as a relic of its particular time and place, and as a museum of how not to write history … .
While we can look today with astonishment upon the shoddy character of Draper and White’s writings, their books have had enormous impact, and we can’t deny that. Much of this is due to their great success in their creating a myth for science as a religion. Their myth of science as a religion is replete with battles, and martyrdoms, and saints, and creeds. And as we know, or should know, myths are often much more powerful than historical realities.5
Biblically based opposition to anesthesia was almost non-existent
Like many lies, there is a half-truth hidden in White’s claims, or in this case, a grain of truth. It is true that James Simpson, a devout adherent of the Free Church of Scotland, headed off possible religious objections to use of chloroform in childbirth in a pamphlet.6 And indeed, one of his arguments was appealing to Genesis 2:21:
So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh.
Then in the UK, Queen Victoria, the official head of the Church of England, used what she called “the blessed chloroform” for the birth of her last two (of nine) children.
Because of Simpson’s pamphlet, atheists have assumed there was widespread opposition to childbirth pain relief based on Genesis 3:16. Apologists, including ourselves at times, have given this impression of a strong outcry, while pointing out the errors in such reasoning.
However, it turns out that Simpson didn’t need to write this pamphlet, because no-one of note raised religious objections in the first place! Rather, leading clergymen and rabbis were supportive.
One definitive source is A.D.. Farr, a medical historian and Senior Chief Scientific Officer, North East of Scotland Blood Transfusion Service, who thoroughly researched literature from Simpson’s time.7 Farr explained:
In fact, as a recent exhaustive study of the contemporary medical, theological and lay literature has revealed, up until that date no such assertions had been publicly made, nor is there any evidence of such views being held privately by any more than a small handful of individuals.
In addition to medical and moral arguments it has often been alleged that opposition to anaesthesia was raised upon religious grounds. However, despite widespread references by 20th century commentators to religious attacks upon anaesthesia, especially in obstetrics, evidence of any such attack in contemporary writings is singularly sparse.
Opposition to anesthesia was mainly medical, not religious
Now Farr documents that there were objections to anesthesia made for a few years, but not biblical ones. A major one was based on their ideas about pain—it was thought to be a good thing to help survival during surgery. Simpson was somewhat dismissive of this claim, but he did produce statistics showing that mortality rate for limb amputations was lower under ether anesthesia than without it. And applied to childbirth, some believed that alleviating birth pangs may inhibit the contractions and thus harm the birthing process. How could a birthing mother respond to vital instructions and questions if she were drowsy or unconscious from anesthesia?
Another very reasonable objection was that chloroform was at the time a new and untested substance. So there were questions about its safety. Indeed, chloroform is no longer used as an anesthetic, precisely on safety grounds. But this is an objection to the means of anesthesia, not to anesthesia itself—chloroform has been replaced by much safer and more effective anesthetics.
Another class of objections was moral, which is not the same as biblical or religious. For example, there were claims that anesthesia was akin to severe drunkenness. However, such arguments were made mainly by those who already raised medical objections, and were just supporting arguments designed to appeal to emotions.
But none of these medical and extrabiblical moral arguments against anesthesia were used for many years. It wasn’t long before anthesthesia was well established as an incredible benefit for patients.
Arguments in the USA
One book addressing a number of common misconceptions has a chapter on what it calls “Myth 14: That the Church Denounced Anesthesia in Childbirth on Biblical Grounds.”8 This helpfully discusses Farr’s work, as well as some work in the USA. It turns out that Simpson wasn’t even the only one to head off religious objections that no-one was actually making. In the USA, Harvard physician and obstetrics professor Walter Channing (1786–1876), quickly embraced and strongly supported the new anaethesia, and:
Channing wrote to George Rapall Noyes (1798–1868), Harvard professor of Hebrew and Oriental Languages, to solicit his interpretation of the Genesis passage on pain in childbirth. Noyes replied that “I should as soon believe, that labor-saving machines were in opposition to the declaration, ‘In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread;’ or that the cultivation and clearing of land was opposed to the declaration, ‘Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee’ ” as believe that Genesis forbade the use of anesthesia to relieve the pain of childbirth. For Channing this put to sleep any justifiable biblical reason to avoid anesthesia in childbirth, …8
Noyes basically pointed out the same thing we did above: there are many aspects of the Curse that it would be perfectly moral and biblical to alleviate. Furthermore, no one objects to this alleviation. A leading female creationist apologist rhetorically asked in conversation, “Isn’t it misogynistic to single out childbirth pain as the only aspect of the Curse that it is wrong to alleviate?”
Quite so. This is probably why hardly anyone in real history thought that it was. The same book chapter points out:
After the Civil War some organized opposition to the use of anesthesia in childbirth may have surfaced in the United States, as revealed by the fact that the American Medical Association in 1888 felt it necessary to dismiss “religious objections to obstetric anesthesia as ‘absurd and futile.’” [Ref.] But as in the United Kingdom, little or no evidence supports the claim that the church mounted a systematic or sustained attack; to the contrary, the record reveals that much of the religious and moral opposition arose among medical professionals themselves.8
Roman Catholic opposition?
But to save this atheistic myth, can they point to Roman Catholic opposition to childbirth pain relief? Not a chance. The book chapter concludes with:
In the fall of 1956 Pope Pius XII (1876–1958), responding to concerns raised by the Italian Society of the Science of Anesthetics, asserted that a doctor who uses anesthesia in his practice “enters into contradiction neither with the natural moral order nor with the specifically Christian ideal”; patients “desirous of avoiding or soothing the pain can, without disquiet of conscience, make use of the means discovered by science and which, in themselves, are not immoral. Particular circumstances can impose another line of conduct, but the Christian’s duty of renunciation and of interior purification is not an obstacle to the use of anesthetics.”[Ref.]
This clear statement from arguably one of the most conservative Christian churches reveals the continued bankruptcy of the myth that the church denounced the use of anesthesia in childbirth on biblical grounds.8
The Bible doesn’t oppose pain relief for childbirth, any more than it opposes alleviation of pain in general, labour-saving machinery, clearing thorns and thistles, curing diseases, or saving lives. The general principle is that alleviating the effects of the Curse is considered a blessing, and Jesus’ healing miracles are a prime example.
But real history shows that hardly anyone actually made biblical arguments against anesthesia. Rather, most of the objections were medical: whether chloroform was safe—an argument against the means of anesthesia rather than against anesthesia per se—or whether unconsciousness would harm the patient. Thus, it is time to put this bad argument to rest.
References and notes
- Blum, D., New York Times, 2006. Return to text.
- Sarfati, J., The Genesis Account: A theological, historical, and scientific commentary on Genesis 1–11, p. 328, 3rd Edn, CPB, 2018. Return to text.
- Clarke, H., The deep sleep of Adam, Quodlibeta, 19 Dec 2008; bedejournal.blogspot.com. Return to text.
- Lindberg, D.C. and Numbers, R.L. (1987), Beyond war and peace: A reappraisal of the encounter between Christianity and science, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 39.3:140–149, 1987; asa3.org. Return to text.
- Principe, L.M., Science and Religion, The Teaching Company, Lecture 2, 2006. Return to text.
- Simpson, J.Y., In answer to the religious arguments advanced against the employment of anaesthetic agents in midwifery and surgery, 1847. Return to text.
- Farr, A.D., Early opposition to obstetric anaesthesia, Anaesthesia 35:896–907, 1980. Return to text.
- Chapter by history professor Rennie Schoepflin, in: Numbers, R.L., Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, Harvard University Press, 2010, pp. 123–130. This has some excellent chapters, but as expected in a book edited by notorious anticreationist Ronald Numbers, there is a pro-evolution chapter and an anti–Intelligent-Design chapter. Return to text.