Nowadays, when a woman gives birth, either the healthcare provider or the mother is the subject performing the action expressed by the verb deliver used in the active voice, the object of this action being the baby.
But originally, in Middle English, the mother was the object of the verb deliver used in the passive voice and meaning to disburden, from its primary sense, to set free (as in “deliver us from evil” in the Lord’s Prayer). Via Middle-French forms such as delivrer and délivrer, deliver is from late Latin dēlīberāre, used in the sense of classical Latin līberāre, to set free, to liberate.
For instance, the following lines are from a versified homily on the birth of Jesus Christ, from a manuscript dating from the early part of the 14th century:
Than com tim Mari mild*
Suld be deliuerd of hir child.
(* mild: of God, Christ or the Virgin Mary: gracious, merciful)
Originally, when deliver was used in the active voice, the midwife or the doctor was the subject, and the mother the object. Dr. James Cooke (died 1693/4?), of Warwick, “Practitioner in Physick and Chirurgery”, gave a striking account of the practices of his time in Mellificium Chirurgiæ: Or, The Marrow of Chirurgery (London, 1704):
As a dead Child is to be removed by manual Operation: So also a living, if it be too big, or the Womans Passage too strait, or it cannot possibly be turned; or both be too weak. This is dreadful; yet ’tis better to save Life, than lose two. The way in both is the same; yet be not too rash in this work, but as careful, so very tender. I have been oft call’d where there hath been no great need, and compell’d to do what I would have forborn, of which, take this. One Goodwife Elliot, at the Asps near Warwick; where I found two Midwives, after I had desired them to acquaint me with the Womans condition, they said it was desperate, she being almost spent, the Child was dead, and Travail or Pains gone. I went to her and observed her Pulse, which though low, was equal; making tryal, I found the Child lay well, and I supposed alive. I earnestly desired them to let me return, promising them somewhat to provoke pains, and doubted not but of a good Issue. But no intreaty would serve; assaying to be gone, the Women took me and brought me by violence back to the Bed-side, telling me they were sure the Child was dead, and I should not stir till I had delivered her. I us’d my Instrument, which had no sooner entred slightly into the Scull, but with little strength the Child came away alive. After which, I dressed it with some Parsly and Butter at present, being in the Night; after which, I dressed it several days with other Medicines; and it was in a hopeful way. After which, a careless Servant coming to watch, having the Child in her Lap, being asleep, dropt it into the Fire, and there it was suffocated and burnt to death. Another I was sent for to at Woodcot in Church-Wotton Parish; where after I had been twice, and would not do any thing, the Child being alive, and her pains sufficient, though the Midwives affirmed it was dead; the third time they sent, and beg’d I would deliver her. After tryal how the Child lay, I with my Instrument happily fixed in the lesser corner of the Eye, brought it away, the Child living; after I cured it, and is now alive, being fourteen years old; the blemish is scarce discernable; though I pulled pretty hard. I could give many observations of delivery of dead Children, which the Midwives have affirmed alive; and I having delivered them, they have, to their shame, been forced to confess they could not but have been dead three or four days: But to pass these.
Nowadays, therefore, the image is no longer of delivering, that is to say freeing, the mother from the burden of her pregnancy, but of delivering, that is to say handing over, the baby, as if it were a package…
cf. also pregnant – enceinte
When Prince George was born on 22nd July 2013, the official announcement, placed on an easel outside Buckingham Palace, used the original formulation:
Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Cambridge was safely delivered of a son at 4.24 p.m. today.