Rogue Midwifery: Birthing Babies on
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 care under the status quo, for-massive-profit, medical
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
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.
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
Here's a link to many of her articles: angelfire.com/la3/kirstenanderberg/
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