(Originally published in my online newsletter October 2013)
Thanks so much for agreeing to speak with me about a topic that is both near and dear to our hearts: the charge of murder of our dear friend and colleague Rowan Bailey, the climate in North Carolina around midwifery and the whole midwifery licensing debate nationally.
Stephanie: Tell me a little bit about your history as a community midwife, when did you begin?
Babz: In 1975 a lovely woman who has changed my life many times, Laura Pierce sent for me to come to her side at her birth. When her daughter was born it was like my hands already knew everything. There was a pregnant lady at that birth, who asked me to come to her birth in a few months and after that another lady, and then another. In between of course there was the influx of books, and the midwives who taught me, and the touch of the universe to let me know, this was where I belonged. The first baby I was blessed to catch is nearing forty years of age.
S: Are you still practicing?
B: I have not practiced in a few years now, in the state of North Carolina, but I have traveled to states where the laws kept other instate midwives from being able to attend a woman who fit a “high risk” category. Often that category is as simple as being a VBAC mother.
S: What do you know about Rowan’s case?
B: She is one of many midwives wrongly charged, unfortunately. The war on women takes many forms. One of them is stopping you from the right to have your baby any way you want to, with any care you prefer, and alone if that is your choice. She is not the only midwife charged for attending births, but she is the only midwife at this time charged with murder. Midwives do not murder. She is charged under a law titled Ethans Law, which was put in place to charge a madman who murdered a mother who was pregnant. She is charged so harshly to get her to take a plea to another charge. Pleading down is the American justice systems way. Hundreds of midwives have been forced to stop serving. To leave their home states and practice elsewhere, to lose their homes to attorneys fees and fines. This is a mouthy human rights woman who is being shushed. The facts of the case are not to be discussed because it is now in a court of law. Anything I can say on the subject must be prefaced with this is what I think I know, and that is not even half a step above gossip.
This is what I do know. Rowan opened a cooperative that taught people to care for their own health and got plenty of publicity for it, it is frowned upon to take responsibility for yourself nowadays. North Carolina is not a state where it is legal to have any other midwife at your birth but a nurse midwife. There are no where near enough of them to go around. I know six midwives in the state of North Carolina who have been forced by being arrested into stopping their practice. They all served their communities for decades and their communities were left no choice on their births. I know twice that number who were served cease and desist orders and forced to stop and two who left the state to serve, leaving the communities they had served without a midwife.
I know babies die at birth and doctors are not charged when that happens. Before my retirement I had attended at least a hundred births where I kept no records, or left them with the parents to guide their next midwife. I do not care what went “wrong” at this birth. Things go wrong at birth. I care that there is a woman poised to be the Nelson Mandela of midwives, to spend years in jail for the much mourned loss of a baby, as a lesson in fear of authority to the rest of us.
S: What is the state of midwifery in North Carolina?
B: You cannot be a midwife in the state of North Carolina, attend a home birth and not have broken the law. Your CPM means nothing here. My forty years of experience means nothing here. If you transport a woman in labor who needs medical attention? You are lucky if you are not going to jail. The end.
S: Is there a national Midwifery Standard?
B: There is no nationwide midwifery standard. What is legal in Arizona is illegal in Utah and so on. We all have to wiggle and work within the constraints we have or to throw them away and say, no I will not follow an unjust law. I will stand between this woman and the system bullying her into a [cesarean] section. I will stand between this woman needing a section and people who treat her as if she is a failure. I will stand for all women to make their choices about their body.
There was a midwife on the West Coast charged with homicide. She took a plea of assault so she could just go home, cost her a $100,000. There was a midwife in Raleigh who lost one child in a seventeen year practice, those are damned good stats, hundreds of babies she caught for a grateful community who supported her whole heartily. She was forced out of state, leaving her community.
There is a midwife I know who responded to a neighbors emergency call in the middle of the night, not a client, a neighbor who called. When she got there the primaries had already transported. The lone policeman asked her name, she gave it, she was arrested and eventually charged with practicing medicine without a license. She lost thousands and thousands of dollars to defending herself. Not because the mom and dad had a complaint, because the state wanted her to go away.
I know a midwife who attended a breech birth, nothing went wrong, no one was harmed, she still went to prison, because it was against the law to attend a breech where she was. No matter that she had decades of experience, no matter that it was the mothers choice not to present herself for a doctor ordered section. She went to prison. How the world still dearly loves a cage.
I know a mother who begged for midwifery help with the birth of her twins. There was none available to her in her midwifery illegal state. Her pregnancy history was fast births. Her obgyn said the only way he would attend her was a planned section at 38 weeks. She stayed home unattended, because there was no midwife available to her. She indeed had her kids in under an hour, loaded into the car to present at the hospital and bled to death on the way there. Forty five miles. She died. She died! Because there was no one at her birth to just lift out the placenta and let the uterus tamp down and control her bleeding. Babies and mothers die in childbirth. It happens every single day. Birth is as safe as life gets. And midwives go to prison. Or to another state, or to the poorhouse, because they are no longer allowed to practice their craft. You either support parents rights to their births and their children, or you don’t. The choice is always yours. The choices should always be yours.
S: These stories all sound very unjust, in the truest sense. What is the answer?
B: I believe the answer is self regulation of midwives, peer review groups in the community, information passed mother to mother, friend to friend, midwife to midwife, in loving honesty and with respect for the mother/baby unit at the forefront. There are too many differences in practice and too many different women who require midwives, to have just one standard. I believe there should be a midwife for every woman to guide her through the birth the mother has chosen as her ritual into motherhood. I believe all of the choices should be the mothers guided by who she chooses to attend her. I believe it is the midwives job to educate women in the art of birth.
S: Finally, I know you attended to Jeannine Parvati-Baker in her final hours on earth. She is a deeply respected birthkeeper and many reading this may not know that she coined that term. She is an author and the founder of Hygiea College. Have things changed so much since she passed? What would Jeannine do or say around Rowan’s case?
B: I feel quite positive that Jeannine would be at the forefront of this support for Rowan. She had an innate knowing of birth, of the life and death of being a human. She was authentic in her midwifery, in her being with woman. Her support for laboring mothers getting exactly what they needed to have their babies is in its own way, legendary. She honored me to pass while I cared for her and the way she blessed me as midwife was as life changing as any birth i attended. She told me I was her final student, and that I was a good one. I will never forget the feel of her, of her grace and style, the touch of her hand on mine. She was the most centered person I ever loved.
Bless you Babz and may God bless Rowan and the Spirit of Jeannine and all midwives everywhere who serve women in birth. Thank you so much Babz for spending this time with me. Many blessings to you and your family.
Rowan Bailey is currently under house arrest in Asheville, North Carolina. Her case is due to go to trial in March 2015. Families for Birth Freedom is currently raising funds for Rowan so that she may heat her home, put food in her fridge and pay her rent. The rules of her house arrest are very restrictive and limit her ability to earn money, which she does when she can, taking house sitting and pet sitting jobs, but she needs more. If you can help, please do by sending a Paypal donation using the email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you.
Barbara ‘Babz’ Covington is a natural living advocate who believes in treading very lightly on the earth. She knows in her heart, the love you take is equal to the love you make.
Related blogs: In Defense of Midwifery by Shannon Mitchell and Independent midwives: why we can’t afford to lose them by Annalisa Barbieri