A Child Is Born

Is labor pain simply awful?

The philosophical parent isn’t philosophical every moment of every day. As the day of a baby’s arrival gets closer, expectant mothers and fathers are bound to be feeling many things: excitement, apprehension, boredom, discomfort, impatience, joy. Before birth there may also be reflection about the events to come—the great unknown, for those who haven’t given birth before. In fact, there needs to be reflection. Parents-to-be have to make decisions about the birth process that involve first-class philosophical questions. One of these unavoidable questions is about pain.

According to a very simple view of what has value, pain is bad and pleasure is good; they’re bad and good because of the way they feel. So far, not so controversial. But the account of value I’m referring to says something more exciting: it says pain is the only thing that’s intrinsically bad, and pleasure is the only thing that’s intrinsically good. On this view of value, the ideal delivery is not only painless for the mother, but joyous—mentally pleasurable—and will have no negative impact on the baby, in the present or the future.

For the majority of women, painless delivery does seem to be the ideal. Most elect epidural anesthesia, hoping to reduce pain as much as possible while remaining alert and involved throughout the delivery. A minority, however, see it otherwise. They think there could be something amiss with a perfectly pain-controlled delivery, even assuming mother and baby came out of it healthy. These are women who opt for natural childbirth and would still do so even if all worries about infant health were wiped away. (Let’s set aside concerns about infant health, which must enter decision-making, of course.)

What about these women? Can their priorities be reconciled with the view that pleasure and pain are all that matter? Are these women irrational? Do they deliberately subject themselves to more bad and less good than necessary? Or do those who favor natural childbirth want things worth wanting, but things other than having more pleasure and less pain?

These questions about value are important ones that philosophers have explored for a couple of thousand years, but as the big day comes nearer, you have decisions to make. You must formulate a "birth plan,” letting your doctor know how much pain relief you want to be offered. For you, then, it’s urgent: What really matters, when it comes to having a good birth? Does it make sense to care about anything besides the best possible outcome for your baby and the most enjoyable possible experience for yourself?

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