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Documenting risk: A comparison of policy and information pamphlets for using epidural or water in labour

Newnham, Elizabeth C.; McKellar, Lois V.; Pincombe, Jan I.


Elizabeth C. Newnham

Jan I. Pincombe


Approximately 30% of Australian women use epidural analgesia for pain relief in labour, and its use is increasing. While epidural analgesia is considered a safe option from an anaesthetic point of view, its use transfers a labouring woman out of the category of ‘normal’ labour and increases her risk of intervention. Judicious use of epidural may be beneficial in particular situations, but its current common use needs to be assessed more closely. This has not yet been explored in the Australian context.

To examine personal, social, institutional and cultural influences on women in their decision to use epidural analgesia in labour. Examining this one event in depth illuminates other birth practices, which can also be analysed according to how they fit within prevailing cultural beliefs about birth.

Ethnography, underpinned by a critical medical anthropology methodology.

These findings describe the influence of risk culture on labour ward practice; specifically, the policies and practices surrounding the use of epidural analgesia are contrasted with those on the use of water. Engaging with current risk theory, we identify the role of power in conceptualisations of risk, which are commonly perpetuated by authority rather than evidence.

As we move towards a risk-driven society, it is vital to identify both the conception and the consequences of promulgations of risk. The construction of waterbirth as a ‘risky’ practice had the effect of limiting midwifery practice and women's choices, despite evidence that points to the epidural as the more ‘dangerous’ option.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Jan 31, 2015
Online Publication Date Feb 19, 2015
Publication Date 2015-09
Deposit Date Sep 14, 2022
Journal Women and Birth
Print ISSN 1871-5192
Publisher Elsevier
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 28
Issue 3
Pages 221-227
Public URL