There is an interesting paradox in the arguments of some anti-homebirthers. They argue both that homebirthing is an elitist practice driven by well-educated, wealthy feminists AND that these women do not know, understand, or have easy access to the “truth” about homebirth (because if they did, they would obviously come to the same conclusion as the anti-homebirthers).
Many of the women driving the rise in homebirth are the most capable of finding information on the risks and benefits of homebirth, and if they make a decision that goes against the anti-homebirthers’ beliefs, they certainly aren’t doing it because of a lack of information on risks. A simple Google search on “home birth” pulls up many sites; some on the first page include a Wikipedia article that has a research review that indicates a higher rate of perinatal death in American homebirths, a Daily Beast story called “Homebirth: Increasingly Popular, but Dangerous,” and the website Hurt by Homebirth. It seems that rather than lacking access to the “truth,” some women simply have different interpretations of the evidence and/or different values than the anti-homebirth crowd.
There is, however, a different crowd of women who plan homebirths—or who have homebirths planned for them—who may or may not have accurate information about the risks of homebirth. If they do, it likely doesn’t matter. Their choice is constrained by a subordination of their own autonomy to God, or in many cases, their husbands or their church leaders.
Some may have heard of the Quiverfull Movement and the Christian Patriarchy Movement. The overlap between the two groups is substantial. Those who are “Quiverfull” believe that they must gratefully accept as many children as God gives them, whenever He chooses to give them. The Christian Patriarchy Movement believes in, well, patriarchy. Women must always be under the authority of a man; generally this authority passes from father to husband. The most well known Quiverfull family is the Duggar family of the TV show “19 Kids and Counting.” Kathryn Joyce has an excellent book on the movements, Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement. Two excellent blogs that discuss the ramifications of Quiverfull and Christian Patriarchy are Love, Joy, Feminism, by Libby Anne, who grew up the oldest of 12 in a Quiverfull family; and No Longer Quivering, by Vickie Garrison, who had seven children before leaving the movement.
Because of the movements’ distrust of secular institutions, some in the movements eschew traditional medical care. In addition, in part because they start families young and have so many children, many of these families are low income but do not believe in using government programs such as Medicaid. Of course, many members of the movement go to doctors or licensed midwives anyway, and some even sign up for Medicaid. But many don’t. In many cases, it is the husband who makes the final decision about the healthcare of his pregnant wife and the circumstances of her labor and birth. Sometimes these decisions are in response to the guidance of church leadership.
Amy Chasteen Miller, who conducted a study of unassisted childbirth published in Sociological Inquiry, points out that “women make choices about birth within a web of larger social influences.” For educated, independent women, these choices may come from a feminist sensibility that leads them to reject a paternalistic and technological model of birth. For other women, birth choices may be “driven by God.” In some religious communities,
women see childbirth as fully ‘in God’s hands.’ For these women, seeking medical help for pregnancy and birth reflects a breach of faith and an unwillingness to fully trust ‘God’s will.’
In such circumstances, it is unlikely that women are familiar with the scientific literature regarding risks associated with homebirth, but it is also unlikely that knowing and understanding the risks would have any impact on their decision making–if they had any control over the decision. Miller writes, “For some women, part of surrendering to God is also deferring to their husbands…” One woman writes, “I asked [my husband] where we should have the baby.” Another says, “[My husband] knew we needed to do this baby on our own without a professional birth attendant.” In these families, Miller notes, husbands “played an active role in monitoring, directing, and evaluating the birth process.”
In her article “My Womb for His Purpose,” Kathryn Joyce tells the story of Carri Chmielewski, a self-described “Homeschooler, Homebirther, Homechurcher,” who had an unassisted childbirth after a complicated pregnancy and suffered an amniotic fluid embolism. Her baby died. According to Joyce,
Chmielewski’s husband, who critics charge has erased or hidden much of his wife’s past writing, described her survival as a miracle of God, who spared her even as He took their son.
Melissa, a former Quiverfull daughter who blogs at Permission to Live, was a submissive wife who was active in the web group of Above Rubies, a forum for Quiverfull/Christian Patriarchy mothers. She says of her prenatal care in the U.S., “I had limited my checkups to only a handful to keep costs down.” She also got only one of the two recommended shots for her rh-negative blood type and had her children at home. She could have had comprehensive prenatal care, but her family did not believe in accepting government “welfare” and so went without any insurance at all:
I believed that welfare programs were unnecessary because if every woman just got married to one man and he supported her and her kids there would never be a need for welfare, I believed that Christian rights and privacy were being violated by the government on a regular basis…I remember being on a mommy chat board during my first and second pregnancies and someone started a thread on costs of prenatal care and childbirth. I mentioned that my uninsured home births had cost between six and seven thousand dollars each and felt proud that my costs were so low…
She never mentions anything about her knowledge of homebirth risks, only the “risk” of accepting government assistance.
I was an ATI mom for quite a few years and embraced the Quiverfull teachings. After a number of children we had a close call. A home birth and heavy hemorrhaging nearly claimed my life. I was ready to end the child bearing and focus on the children we had, but my husband didn’t agree. Within nine months I was pregnant again. We actually had insurance and I wanted to have the next birth in a hospital, but it was more important to my husband to have a home birth and “prove” his faith. I asked him, “What are you going to do if I bleed to death?” His answer amazed me. “Get a new one.”
This women knew first hand that there were risks to homebirth, ones she did not wish to accept. Her religion, however, would not allow her to exercise her own autonomy.
According to Birth Junkie
, “Born in Zion
is a book by Christian ‘childbirth minister’ Carol Balizet, who ‘ministers’ to women during their home births” (I wanted to verify what Birth Junkie writes, but the book is now out of print and is currently selling for $200 per copy, so we’re going to take Birth Junkie’s word for it). She writes of Balizet:
[W]hatever Balizet’s ministry may be, it is certainly not midwifery….her teachings on childbirth are thoroughly unbiblical and even dangerous. As if all this weren’t bad enough, Balizet believes that to receive any medical care whatsoever is a sin. It is yielding to the “world system” (167) and to the “arm of flesh” (84). Furthermore, taking any drug for any reason is sorcery according to Balizet (171). She refers to people who have never ingested drugs of any kind as “undefiled” and “virgins” (174)….Balizet believes that getting a Caesarean Section is a particularly abominable sin. All women who have had Caesareans have “the same spirit,” the “spirit of Caesar,” who is one and the same with “the Strong Man, the Satanic high prince over the organization and sphere of humanism” because they have “rendered their babies unto Caesar” rather than to God (48). In other words, women with Caesarean scars are idol-worshipers who are demon possessed.
Followers of such a philosophy are likely to be frightened into not seeking appropriate medical care–or bullied into not seeking it by church or family “authorities.”
Vyckie Garrison tells the harrowing story (long but fascinating if you want to read the whole thing) of her belief in her husband’s and God’s authority, and how it impacted her prenatal care and birth. First she was betrayed by the conventional medical system. A doctor told her a bone spur made vaginal birth impossible. When she found out that wasn’t true:
‘Then why have I had three c-sections?’ I wanted to know. Well, it turns out that there really was no good reason–only that the first doctor had run out of patience so declared me to be ‘too small’ to give birth. And because of the first cesarean ~ I had automatically scheduled repeat c-sections for my next two babies.”
Her Christian OB offered severe limitations on VBAC and laughed at her wish for vaginal birth. Having embraced the Quiverfull lifestyle, she decided to deliver with Judy Jones, an unlicensed midwife and devout Christian. Because Vyckie had many complications in her pregnancy (for which she did not seek other care), Judy was at their house frequently. Vyckie writes,
As ‘part of the family,’ Judy was around to witness the way that Warren dealt with the children…She spent a lot of time talking to me about the importance of upholding my husband’s authority…she always backed him up as ‘head of the home’….the wife should pray for the father of her children–but it’s essential that she never contradict him or do anything which might undermine his rightful authority as protector, provider–and priest in the home.
As the pregnancy progressed, Vyckie’s health worsened:
I was feeling particularly horrible…I told Judy that I really needed help–I really needed to go to the doctor. Judy drove to my house and did the usual check and assured me that–although I was still spilling sugar in my urine (+1,000)–I was okay and the baby was fine….Even though we really didn’t have the money for it, I insisted that I needed to go to the OB/GYN. ‘I can’t handle this anymore–I feel like I’m dying!’ I was laying on the couch and Judy got down on her knees beside me and did what she called a ‘diaphragmatic release,’ in which she put one hand under my lower back and her other hand on my lower abdomen and then waited patiently while the uterine muscles relaxed. It did calm me down, and while we waited, Judy told me a bible story…about the time when the children of Israel were wandering in the desert, and the Lord was providing for their every need…[b]ut the Israelites grew…greedy. ‘They had meat in abundance,’ Judy explained, ‘but they suffered leanness of the soul.’ Leanness of the soul … that’s what happens to those who don’t trust the Lord through their trials–those who seek “worldly” remedies and don’t have the faith to believe that God will never give us more than we can handle.
Eventually, after months of complications and a harrowing labor, she had a hospital transfer and an emergency cesarean. Her recovery was lengthy, and her mother urged her not to have more children. Vyckie writes,
But what about God? What did He want? His word made it very plain ~ He wanted to bless us and to use our family for His glory. Who was I to say, “No. Sorry, Lord–but it’s just too difficult for me”?
Now that she has left the movement, Vyckie offers the following reflections on her experience:
Because I had made the commitment to welcome every pregnancy as an unmitigated gift from the Lord, and because I also believed that accepting government assistance in the form of Medicaid was tantamount to trusting Caesar to provide for the health and wellbeing of my babies, I desperately sought an alternative to the expensive surgical deliveries. I know now that it was absurd for a woman with my health issues and high-risk status to eschew all medical care and trust myself and my unborn baby to an unlicensed ‘lay midwife’ – but I was idealistically motivated, and it made perfect sense to me at the time. In fact, I was absolutely certain that it was God Himself who put the idea in my head and lead me to Judy Jones….Judy’s incompetent, negligent, and abusive pre- and post-natal care…seriously endangered my life and my baby’s life, and left me so physically, emotionally, and spiritually traumatized that I suffered severe PTSD for over a year and still sometimes have nightmares almost seventeen years later.
Rebekah Pearl Anast
, the daughter of Christian Patriarchy couple Michael and Debi Pearl
, married Gabe, a man who quit his job to study the Bible. The family lived in a rural home outside Gallup, New Mexico, where their electricity has been turned off because they can’t afford to pay the bill. Rebekah has 6 homebirths assisted only by Gabe. She does seem to have enjoyed them (at least the first 4):
Now, I have had 4 “unassisted” homebirths. It did save us 20,000 dollars all told, and has been a thrilling and bonding experience for both my husband and I.
However, she has so subsumed her own desires to those of her husband that it is unclear whether she knows how to have her own feelings. Of her relationship to God, her home, and her husband, she says (DH means Dear Husband),
[I]f your worship of God IN ANY WAY short-changes your husband or son, or makes them feel shut out, then IMO, it is not in spirit and in truth….Remember that your husband is your lord….It really helped me to remind myself ‘this kitchen belongs to DH, the food belongs to DH, the meal is all about DH, and both me and our daughter are helpers for DH…’
Rebekah’s entire life is dictated by the whims and desires of her husband, so whatever knowledge she has of the risks of unassisted childbirth are likely to be irrelevant.
There definitely appears to be a group of women homebirthing under questionable circumstances regarding their knowledge and autonomy–but it isn’t privileged feminists beholden to misinformation campaigns of hippie websites.