In these times when taking active responsibility for one’s own wellness has become not just trendy, but actually a financial necessity for the many who have inadequate health insurance or none at all, it is easy to forget how recently home births and midwifery were considered a bit wacky. Yet many Ulsterites can still recall the brouhaha in the early 1980s when Dr. George Wootan – then the only doctor in the county offering home births as part of his practice – had his license temporarily suspended as a result of a couple of poor outcomes that led to allegations of “deficiencies” in his methods (as if traditional OB/GYNs never lose a baby or a mother during a physician-attended hospital birth).
Dr. Wootan eventually got his license back, still has a family practice in West Shokan and became a well-known holistic medicine guru through his book Take Charge of Your Children’s Health. But he was forced to give up the home births that had constituted 20 percent of his practice, and he consistently expressed the belief that he was targeted because hospitals lose money when women give birth at home.
Nowadays, planning a home birth has become somewhat less of a Sisyphean task, and New York is one of 27 states where you can legally have one presided over only by a midwife. The number of home births continues to increase, and the availability of this alternative approach to childbearing owes a great deal to the work of Ina May Gaskin, author of the book that many consider the “bible” of today’s natural childbirth movement: Spiritual Midwifery, first published in 1977 and now in its fourth edition, translated into six languages.
Gaskin first learned to deliver babies the hard way in 1971, with no formal training, on a schoolbus convoy eastbound from San Francisco to found a commune in rural Tennessee. The “intentional community” known as the Farm proved one of the most successful social experiments of the hippie era, attracting an estimated 10,000 visitors per year; the Wall Street Journal went on to call it “the General Motors of American communes.”
Though no longer run as a collective, the Farm still exists on a smaller scale; and its most significant contribution to American culture has been the ad hoc school of midwifery that developed among its female population, led by Ina May Gaskin. The Farm Midwifery Center delivered thousands of babies using low-tech methods over decades, with outcomes that by many parameters compared favorably with hospital births. Gaskin worked intensively with technology-shy Amish women living near the Farm, and from Central American women learned the “all fours” technique for repositioning babies at risk from shoulder dystocia. She worked so hard to popularize use of that technique that it is known today in the obstetrics field as the Gaskin Maneuver.
Another of Gaskin’s major contributions was to help create a means of accrediting midwives that would serve as an alternative to the prevailing model of clinically trained nurse/midwives who tended to default to hospitalization, sedation and Caesarean sections whenever there was any sort of complication, like a breech birth. In 1982 she co-founded the Midwives’ Alliance of North America (MANA) and was its president from 1996 to 2002. A subsidiary of MANA, the North American Registry of Midwives, developed a rigorous protocol to confer the Certified Professional Midwife accreditation.
“We were actually making our own culture about birth in which fear was not going to be a big part,” says Gaskin in the trailer for a 2012 documentary, Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin and the Farm Midwives. Directed by Sarah Lamm and Mary Wigmore, the film tells the story of how that group of counterculture women learned from one another and developed a successful model that got a much broader public thinking seriously about the downside of our reliance on mechanized medicine to accomplish a task that used to come naturally to women for millennia.
Birth Story will be screened at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck on Sunday, August 25 beginning at 1 p.m. It will be followed by a discussion led by one of our region’s own heroines of the alternative women’s health movement: Susun Weed, green witch and director of the Wise Woman Center in High Woods. Weed’s groundbreaking 1985 publication Wise Woman Herbal for the Childbearing Year and subsequent manuals for do-it-yourself herbal maintenance of the female body sit proudly alongside Gaskin’s writings on many a bookshelf, so it’s difficult to imagine a better choice to introduce this documentary about a woman whose work helped to inspire her own healing career.
Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin and the Farm Midwives screening & discussion with Susun Weed, Sunday, August 25, 1 p.m., $8.50/$5, Upstate Films, 6415 Montgomery Street (Route 9), Rhinebeck; (845) 876-2515, https://upstatefilms.org.