Tocophobia, or Fear of Childbirth, on the Rise

Some young women are terrified of pain or alien growth in their bodies.

ByABC News
December 2, 2010, 3:14 PM

Dec. 3, 2010— -- Karen DuVall, a 23-year-old college student from Vacaville, Calif., was surprised there was a word for her unrelenting fear of childbirth -- tocophobia.

DuVall's aunt had told her about a "third degree tear" after having her first child. Later, in a sexuality class, she was horrified by a photo of a woman giving birth.

"The more I learned about childbirth, the more afraid of it I've actually become," DuVall, a college theater major, told "I'm afraid of my body being ruined. I'm afraid of having an aneurysm and dying. I'm even afraid that when I get married, my husband won't be attracted to me anymore after giving birth. I'm afraid that I just won't be me anymore."

It's not that DuVall doesn't want children -- she would eventually like to adopt.

Some people are afraid of snakes, others bridges and tunnels, but a small number of women are phobic about the very notion of giving birth.

Tocophobia (also spelled tokophobia) is derived from the Greek "tocos" (childbirth) and "phobos" (fear).

There are no statistics available in the United States, but British reports have shown that as many as 1 in 6 women have extraordinary anxiety, and the number may be growing.

At its worst, tocophobia can be so profound that some women, even those who yearn for children, choose not to get pregnant.

Oscar-winning actress Helen Mirren admitted to it in a 2007 interview, telling an Australian television show that her fear began as a 13-year-old when she saw a graphic video.

"I swear it traumatized me to this day," said Mirren, 65. "I haven't had children and now I can't look at anything to do with childbirth. It absolutely disgusts me."

A study of 26 women published in the 2000 issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry said phobic avoidance of pregnancy is a "harrowing condition" that may date from adolescence or be secondary to a traumatic delivery.

It can also be a symptom of prenatal depression. Researchers emphasized the need for doctors to acknowledge the condition.

"It's more common than one would think," said Erica Lyon, author of "The Big Birth Book," who is a consultant for New York City's Tribeca Parenting.

She counsels many older women who have waited to have children.

"I think it tends to be a woman with a type-A personality," said Lyon. "She may have a previous history of anxiety or depression or struggled with an eating disorder. We don't understand the brain enough to know why."