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From "apparent death" to "birth asphyxia": a history of blame

Journal title
Pediatric research
Publication year
2018
Author(s)
Obladen, M.
Pages
403-411
Volume
83
Number
2

Since the sixteenth century, competition between midwives and surgeons has created a culture of blame around the difficult delivery. In the late seventeenth century, 100 years before oxygen was discovered, researchers associated "apparent death of the newborn" with impaired respiratory function of the placenta. The diagnosis "birth asphyxia" replaced the term "apparent death of the newborn" during the mass phobia of being buried alive in the eighteenth century. This shifted the interpretation from unavoidable fate to a preventable condition. Although the semantic inaccuracy ("pulselessness") was debated, "asphyxia" was not scientifically defined until 1992. From 1792 the diagnosis was based on a lack of oxygen. "Blue" and "white" asphyxia were perceived as different disorders in the eighteenth, and as different grades of the same disorder in the nineteenth century. In 1862, William Little linked birth asphyxia with cerebral palsy, and although never confirmed, his hypothesis was accepted by scientists and the public. Fetal well-being was assessed by auscultating heart beats since 1822, and continuous electronic fetal monitoring was introduced in the 1960s without scientific assessment. It neither diminished the incidence of birth asphyxia nor of cerebral palsy, but rather raised the rate of cesarean sections and litigation against obstetricians and midwives.

Research abstracts