Question: "Is it wrong for a woman to get an epidural and/or other pain relievers during childbirth?"
Answer: Pain has been a part of childbirth ever since Eve gave birth to Cain (Genesis 4:1). Most scholars agree that labor pain is part of the curse God placed upon Eve because of her sin in eating the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3:16), just as weeds and thistles were part of Adam’s curse (Genesis 3:17–18). Some people argue that, since childbirth pain is the consequence for sin, a mother in labor should not try to dull or escape that pain. Others disagree, noting that the Hebrew word translated “pain” can also mean “toil” or “labor” and does not necessarily imply physical suffering, but rather hard work in giving birth. But if it is true that physical suffering and/or hard labor in childbirth is God’s judgment on a woman, is it wrong to have an epidural and/or other pain-relieving drugs during childbirth? Is requesting an epidural an attempt to nullify God’s righteous judgment?
To carry that argument to its logical conclusion, we would also need to ban weed-killers, lawn mowers, and most modern farming techniques, since God cursed the ground for Adam and declared that man would have to produce his food by the sweat of his brow. To remain consistent, if epidurals are wrong, then all time- or work-saving devices for men must be equally wrong. Furthermore, since ALL physical pain is due to sin’s influence on this planet, even the use of aspirin would be an offense to God’s justice, according to this way of thinking. There is nothing immoral about a woman receiving pain relievers during childbirth.
Most mothers want the best for their babies, and some mothers feel that all-natural childbirth is the superior way to provide that best. The upsurge in the use of midwives and birthing coaches illustrates this increasing popularity of natural or even home births. Mothers who want to go that route should have full freedom to do so. But that means no epidurals or spinal blocks will be available to her, unless she is rushed to the hospital for emergency intervention.
Other moms-to-be see no sense in unnecessary suffering and eagerly sign up for all the pain-relieving drugs their doctors can offer. Since epidurals and spinals carry no risks for their babies, these mothers also believe they are providing the best for their children while ensuring a relatively pain-free experience for themselves. Even when narcotics are given to a mother in labor, the minimal effect on the child wears off within a few hours. The baby may be a bit sleepier initially, but, after a few hours, babies of medicated mothers respond as normally as those born without drug intervention. Mothers who have opted for pain relievers may be more relaxed and ready to interact with their newborns, instead of being preoccupied with pain.
Before the days of effective pain-relieving drugs, women in childbirth and people undergoing painful medical procedures were often given a wooden stick or a piece of leather to bite down on. The phrase bite the bullet comes from this practice. Caregivers would give those in pain something tough but malleable enough to protect the teeth, while keeping the patients from biting their own tongues in the agony of the moment. As medical knowledge increased, so have the plethora of pain-killing drugs on the market, many of them designed for women in labor. Epidurals, spinal blocks, and local anesthetics are now used to alleviate or reduce the hours of intense pain many women feel during childbirth. But some argue that giving birth is the most natural and beautiful experience in the world and to numb that experience is to rob mother and infant of all God intended them to share together. They also suggest that drugs of any kind may affect the baby’s health. Even those drugs considered safe may create issues not yet discovered.
There are different types of pain relievers offered during labor. An epidural or a spinal block is an injection of medication into the lower back or near the spinal cord of the mother in labor. Epidurals are often given before C-sections or when labor has progressed to a certain point. The numbing effect takes place within moments, a critical factor in the case of emergency Cesareans when the baby or mother is at risk. According to the Mayo Clinic website, epidurals and spinal blocks have little or no effect on the baby. Localized injections of anesthetic near the birth canal do not relieve the pain of contractions but can temporarily numb specific areas of the mother’s body in the case of sutures or tearing. Local anesthetics also have no effect on the baby. Narcotics, however, dull the pain of contractions but can cause sleepiness, nausea, or a change in the mother’s heart rate, which can affect the baby. Narcotics can also cause contractions to lessen or stop, so medical professionals monitor their use carefully in laboring mothers.
The danger in issues such as this one is spiritualizing something that is not spiritual. Some people create moral and spiritual laws out of that which is neither moral nor spiritual. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for doing this (Mark 7:8). We see it within the Christian community about choices such as attending movies, wearing jewelry, homeschooling, or eating out on Sunday. When we become convinced that a certain practice is right or wrong for us, we often build soapboxes from which we preach our convictions to the world. However, if there is no biblical principle behind such convictions, we must be ready to admit that they are our own and not God’s. Romans 14 covers this issue well, with Paul concluding, “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand” (verse 4).
The Bible takes no stance against medicine or doctors, as some would have us think. Luke, the author of Luke and Acts, was called the “beloved physician” (Colossians 4:14) by the apostle Paul. Luke traveled with Paul on several of his missionary journeys, and some scholars believe that he was Paul’s personal physician. Paul also encouraged his young protégé, Timothy, to “use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses” (1 Timothy 5:23). So there is nothing spiritual about refusing medical treatment or pain relievers when needed. Women who live in areas of the world where epidurals or spinal blocks are available should utilize them if they desire, and women who want all-natural births should also feel free to decline medication. Neither choice is in any way nullifying God’s plan or defying His righteous decrees. Jesus healed every kind of physical pain and illness during His time on earth, demonstrating that there is no spiritual value in suffering unnecessarily (Matthew 4:24).
Romans 14:22 can be our guide in all matters that are not clearly addressed in the Bible by verse or by principle: “So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves.” In other words, form convictions as the Holy Spirit leads and follow those convictions as an act of surrender to Jesus. But don’t judge others who may not have that conviction, and do not allow them to deter you from yours. We all answer to God for how well we obeyed His direction, and keeping a clear conscience in everything should be a primary goal of every Christian (Romans 14:12).