Ina May Gaskin
to birth a local movement of midwives.
BY CAROL WILEY LORENTE
As the caravan wound its way across the country before finally establishing a vegetarian community called The Farm in Summertown, Tenn., 11 more babies were born in transit. "We had no money," says Ina May, "so we couldn't pay doctors, and our beliefs didn't permit us to accept welfare." It became apparent that someone was going to have to learn how to deliver babies, so a group of community members, led by Gaskin, set up a birth clinic at The Farm. With the help of a sympathetic local doctor, they taught themselves how to deliver babies. In The Farm's heyday during the late 1970s, the group of midwives helped birth two dozen babies a month.
Gaskin's work with the midwives might have gone unnoticed had it not been for a book she wrote called Spiritual Midwifery (The Book Publishing Co., 1977). Considered a seminal work, it presented pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding from a fresh, natural and spiritual perspective, rather than the standard clinical viewpoint. In homebirth and midwifery circles, it made her a household name, and a widely respected teacher and writer. "She's viewed as the "mother of authentic midwifery," says Jan Tritten, editor of Midwifery Today, a quarterly journal.
Gaskin still delivers half a dozen babies a month, and campaigns tirelessly for a national certification program for lay midwives, or those who are not trained in medical schools, but in midwifery schools and workshops, and through experience. She also teaches midwifery, writes books and articles for medical journals and edits her quarterly journal, The Birth Gazette. "Throughout the world, " Tritten says, "her contribution has been huge."
Today, Gaskin remains committed to the idea that midwives offer society more than births with better outcomes than physician-assisted births. "Midwifery is an essential profession," Gaskin says. "A midwife's work means something: It prepares the woman to go through childbirth in a way that's transformative and empowering. The empowerment and self respect she learns in labor is passed on to the child in a loving relationship."
Gaskin believes that midwifery can help cure a lot of societal ills, including unwanted teen pregnancies. Her hope is that midwifery will take hold at the local level and that its influence will spur positive changes. She says midwives should provide a system of care that addresses breastfeeding and birth control, as well as pregnancy and childbirth. In countries with local networks of midwives such as The Netherlands, she notes, mothers and babies are healthier than in the United States, and fewer teens have unwanted pregnancies. "There are problems we're going to keep having until we restore midwifery to its proper status," says Gaskin.
"The rate of teen pregnancy in the United States is the highest in the industrialized world," Gaskin points out. "We have the highest maternal health care costs, yet our infant mortality rate is high, millions of women don't get adequate prenatal care and our rate of breastfeeding is low. Education and care by midwives in the neighborhoods and communities could help avoid these problems."
"When we as a society begin to value mothers as the givers and supporters of life, then we will see social change in ways that matter."
CAROL WILEY LORIENTE is special projects editor of VEGETARIAN TIMES.
Some other works by Ina May Gaskin available on-line: