Rogue Midwifery: Birthing Babies on the Sly
By Kirsten Anderberg
Women helping other women deliver babies is as old as humanity. It makes sense. So why do mainstream doctors and hospitals act like midwifery is some radical, dangerous, medically-irresponsible quackery? In Scandanavia, the UK, and the Netherlands, female midwifery is a thriving occupation. Yet in America, it has been constructively outlawed as a profession, for 100 years. While I was in labor, during my home birth, I actually asked the midwives, “Are you sure this is okay to do at home, and not in a hospital?” They said, “Kirsten, think about it. THIS is the way women birthed for thousands of years before doctors and hospitals.” That made sense, but I had to ask, due to my years of American medical brainwashing.
My midwives were rogue outlaws, in many ways. They fully understood the political activism involved, they fully appreciated the anarchist nature of what they were doing. They birthed approximately 200 babies in the Seattle area, between the years of 1980 and 2000, and they did so with no licenses, and no medical credentials. They delivered my baby at home, illegally, and I am eternally grateful. When I gave birth in 1984, there were no hospitals allowing midwives to birth in them, no insurance plan would pay for a midwife, and Swedish Hospital was the only hospital in Seattle “experimenting” with birthing rooms. There were no single or gay mom childbirth classes, so I quit going to childbirth classes, as they were filled only with middle-class, heterosexual couples.
One of my midwives, Miriamma Carson, was bisexual, spoke fluent Spanish, was a radical activist and feminist, and she offered me a safe place, when nowhere else felt safe. For $300, I was given private childbirth classes with other single moms, and pre/post natal exams, as well as a 30 hour labor and home birth attended by two midwives. When I had trouble paying it, Miriamma let me barter cooking dinners for her kids instead. I could never have afforded such superior health careunder the status quo, for-massive-profit, medical system.
Both of my midwives, Miriamma and Barbara R., had sons living at home while they were midwives. And they helped homeless teens often. One night Miriamma’s son woke her up at 3 am, saying he had stumbled on a teen girl, in a car, behind the 7-11, in labor. She would not leave with him, so he asked her to wait, and said he would send his radical midwife mom to help her. Miriamma grabbed her birthing kit, and charged out the door towards the 7-11. Miriamma delivered the baby, in the car, in the middle of the night, with dignity, no questions asked. The girl refused to leave with Miriamma, but Miriamma invited the girl to her home, and gave the girl her home phone number before she left. I am wildly impressed by this. Some would say that was irresponsible of Miriamma, and that she should have called the cops, or CPS, or forced the mother into a hospital. But Miriamma understood the difference between trauma and empowerment, and via her gift of birthing assistance without authority trips, she often saved women unnecessary trauma, allowing the joy of birth to prevail.
Once Miriamma had a woman who only spoke Spanish, in labor, in her car, trying to drive her home for the birth. They got stuck in a traffic jam. Miriamma called her nearest friend and told her to prepare a room in their home for a birth. She got off at the next exit and drove to the friend’s house, where the woman had a healthy birth. Miriamma spent years living in poor Mexican villages, and she knew there had been mass marketing of corporate baby formulas in Mexico, as well as in the U.S., shaming poor moms away from breastfeeding. So Miriamma asked the friend whose house they had landed at, to start breastfeeding in front of the new mom, who just delivered, to set a positive tone for breastfeeding. Miriamma was very good at finding healthy ways for moms to learn from each other.
These midwives were also incredibly gifted at networking. They led me to Doctor David Springer, one of the first M.D.’s to graduate from John Bastyr’s Naturopathic College (www.bastyr.edu/), with an N.D. He became one of Seattle’s finest holistic health pediatricians and took grand care of my son for 18 years. They hooked me up with La Leche League (www.lalecheleague.org), when I had breastfeeding problems. They taught low-income moms about the WIC program. They facilitated safe homes for domestic violence victims. They arranged safe abortions when asked. As a matter of fact, Miriamma took me to a safe abortion clinic, when I asked, years before she attended my birth. She bought the equipment abortion clinics use, and hid it in her basement, when she feared abortion may become illegal again. Miriamma is from a long line of radical women who saw access to safe birth control, abortion and delivery, as a woman’s right. Emma Goldman took formal training in midwifery in 1895, and was saddened by the plight of women with unwanted pregnancies, as a matter of fact.
Long have the fields of midwifery, women’s health care, witchcraft, and feminism, been associated. In the article, “Witches, Midwives, and Nurses,” (www.blancmange.net/tmh/articles/witches.html) by B. Ehrenreich and D. English, they say, “Women healers were people’s doctors, and their medicine was part of a people’s subculture. To this very day women’s medical practice has thrived in the midst of rebellious lower class movements which have struggled to be free from the established authorities. Male professionals, on the other hand, served the ruling class…
Witch hunts did not eliminate the lower class woman healer, but they branded her forever as superstitious and possibly malevolent.” Calling self-help, preventative and traditional medicine a “radical assault on medical elitism,” traditional healers named “King-craft, Priest-craft, Lawyer-craft and Doctor-craft” the “four great evils of the time,” according to the article. By the 1840’s, medical licensing laws had been repealed in almost all of the states. But by the 1900’s, racism was also playing into the sexism, classism, and medical elitism, and since it was mostly immigrant and poor women who were having and assisting home births, white women of the Victorian brand, were asking for the white male doctors in sterile hospitals for birthing help, not poor immigrant midwives with birthing experience and herbal knowledge.
And elite, white, women doctors, such as Elizabeth Blackwell, turned on the women midwives too. The article says in 1910, 50% of all babies born in America were delivered by midwives. And although traditional medicine was primarily a political and economical issue, the mainstream medical profession tried to say it was a medical and/or scientific issue. The medical profession has attacked the autonomy of midwives as health care providers, yet DIY women’s health care continues, as a liberating force.
When I was about 20 hours into labor, I started wimping out, and asked to go to a hospital for drugs, as I was exhausted, and sick of the pain. But my midwives reminded me that if I went to a hospital, the midwives would be locked outside, I would be forced to do a lot of authoritative things I would want to rebel against via doctors, and it could end up in a C-section. Those threats kept me at home trying to birth naturally, which finally did happen. And I am so thankful for them talking me through it. Miriamma died in the mid-1990’s, due to cancer. It was an emotional loss for the community.
Her memorial had a cast of hundreds. Woman after woman bore witness to how Miriamma saved her life when in crisis, giving her dignity and comfort, when many of us had felt like “untouchables.” Whether we were homeless teens, battered wives, single welfare moms, gay moms, Spanish-speaking moms; we were all welcome on earth, according to Miriamma’s open-arm policy. We all deserved superior health care. We all deserved safe births and breastfeeding without stigma. Due to these beliefs, my midwives were two of the most radical anarchists I have ever met.
My friend Beth, in Santa Cruz, Ca., gave birth to her daughter, at night, on the sand, at the beach, with the help of her friend/midwife Moon Maiden. Birth is a tremendously powerful event and being drugged in a sterile hospital with paternalistic doctors is not the ultimate birth experience for many of us. Many of us want to birth, with our friends and families, in nature, without drugs. And such freedoms around birth are barely legal, if at all. So rogue midwifery continues on, under the radar of the mainstream, as political activism, as feminism, as alternative health care. Even with the recent advent of birthing rooms and licensed midwives, this field is a rogue one at best. Even mainstream midwifery resources, such as Midwifery Today magazine (www.midwiferytoday.com ), and Midwives Online (www.midwivesonline.com ) have a very anti-authoritarian tone. Doctors are not women’s bosses, and radical midwives understand this. Groups such as the Radical Midwives group (www.radmid.demon.co.uk/ ) in the U.K., see midwifery as a political issue, as well as a health issue. Midwives have been doing this as long as humans have existed. No laws can change it.
Kirsten Anderberg is the mother of a draft-aged son, an activist, feminist comedian, and prolific journalist/writer. She discusses police accountability, midwifery, accommodating vegetarians at winter holiday events, teens’ rights to political dissent, street performance, medicinal uses of stinging nettles, and much more. You can find her articles in Infoshop.org, Alternative Press Review (altpr.org), Utne.com, Zmag.org, Adbusters Magazine, Hipmama.com, Slingshot Zine.
Here’s a link to many of her articles: angelfire.com/la3/kirstenanderberg/