cover image Invisible Labor: The Untold Story of the Cesarean Section

Invisible Labor: The Untold Story of the Cesarean Section

Rachel Somerstein. Ecco, $32 (336p) ISBN 978-0-06-326441-0

This excellent debut investigation from Somerstein, a journalism professor at SUNY New Paltz, explores the history of and controversies surrounding the C-section. She explains that the operation emerged in the 500s and was usually performed on “dead or dying women in an effort to save,” or at least baptize, their babies, few of whom survived. The operation was still considered controversial for imperiling mothers’ lives in the 1800s, when American physicians began testing how to reduce its mortality rate by experimenting on enslaved Black women, who received no anesthesia and were said to “not feel pain as deeply as civilized, white women.” C-sections became safer by the end of the century and doctors started marketing them to upper-class white women, who “were believed to be delicate and constitutionally unable to withstand” labor pains. Today, C-sections comprise about one in three births in the U.S., despite research showing they’re 80% more likely than vaginal births to cause serious complications. According to Somerstein, hospitals overuse the procedure because it’s faster and allows more patients to be seen (and charged) per day. The damning history highlights how sexism and racism have shaped women’s healthcare for centuries, and Somerstein includes her own harrowing account of having an unplanned C-section while insufficiently anesthetized, an experience that left her with PTSD. This is a must-read. Agent: Veronica Goldstein, Fletcher & Company. (June)