Documentary: Catching Babies

This weekend I had the pleasure of seeing the new documentary Catching Babies. Claudia Booker of Birthing Hands DC organized the viewing.

The film is about a midwifery school in El Paso Texas called Maternidad La Luz. It’s a unique place–an intensive midwifery program that trains non-nurse midwives in a 13 month program that is extremely hands on. Two of the student midwives in the film describe catching their first babies just months after arriving at the school.  Students who complete the program can work as out-of-hospital midwives across the country, depending on the laws in their state governing non-nurse midwives.

I actually visited the school in 2007, did an overnight where I shadowed students and midwives as they did their visits and attended births. I went because at the time I was still planning on becoming a midwife, and I was excited by the possibility of attending a school that almost entirely catered to the Latina community.

Because the school is based in El Paso, steps from the border with Juarez, Mexico (the two cities are actually contiguous, the only thing separating them a bridge that represents the border) the vast majority of the women who birth at Maternidad La Luz (it is a free-standing birth center, as well as a school) are Mexican and Spanish-speaking. Many are not US citizens, but living on the border are allowed to travel back and forth with a certain area on what are called “radial visas.”

The film is really well done. The filmmakers are both women of color, which comes across clearly in their perspective and in who they choose to focus on as subjects of the film. We see one African-American student midwife, another who identifies as indigenous Mexica and grew up in El Paso, along with two other student midwives as they take their journey to midwifery. Throughout their stories is the birth stories of the women they support during pregnancy and birth, all of whom are Spanish-speaking women of color.

This focus of the film stood in stark contrast to my own experience when I visited the clinic in 2007.

Continue reading

Race-based health disparities and the politics of difference

My latest column at RH Reality Check discusses the fact that last week was the tenth anniversary of National Latino AIDS Awareness Day, and delves a bit into the causes of race-based health disparities.

I was inspired to write about this topic after hearing scholar and Professor Dorothy Roberts speak at Barnard College. She’s the author of two incredible books about race and health, Killing the Black Body–an absolute must read for anyone interested in reproductive rights, and Fatal Invention, her most recent book (which I reviewed here last year).

Fatal Invention takes on the question of race and genetics, and addresses the growing movement which tries to connect race-based health disparities to genetic difference, despite very little evidence to support these claims.

From my column:

Latinos do not experience higher rates of HIV and AIDS because of any unique genetic propensity or susceptibility toward the disease, but instead because of the social and economic reality faced by Latinos that lead to higher rates of HIV infections and AIDS-related illnesses. Things like lack of access to health care, homophobia, lower rates of condom use, and language barriers among other causes.

To some it may seem absurd to think that anyone would argue that race-based health disparities are a result of genetic or biological differences among racial groups, but the fact is this argument is on the rise, and it isn’t new. Studies with these kinds of claims grace the front page of the New York Times science section on a regular basis. Rather than acknowledge disparities, some want to highlight the concept of difference—meaning that racial groups have biological differences that account for these statistics, rather than blaming the conditions of racism that shape our lives and our health.

This distinction feels as important to highlight as the problem of race-based health disparities themselves, particularly in an era where the FDA can approve a race-specific drug (BiDil, a drug for congestive heart failure) with little scientific evidence backing the claim that it successfully targets African Americans over other groups.

Our work to address health disparities needs to be based outside of the laboratory or pharmaceutical industry, and instead placed in the broader social context that is likely to blame for these disparities in the first place.

Precisely because I talk so much about these race-based health disparities, I think I, and all of us, need to do a better job of explaining the likely cause. Because if not, in our silence, the assumption can be made that the statistics are simply a matter of differences. This obscures the real and horrific injustice of poverty, racism and all of the other social factors at play.

Responding to the home birth debates

My latest column for RH Reality Check is up. With some serious hesitation I decided to respond to the conversation about the safety of home birth started by Michelle Goldberg recently at the Daily Beast. It’s been really challenging to see how polarized these conversations are, how vast the divide is between what feels like two camps: the home birthers (who are assumed to hate hospitals, obstetricians and people who use either) and the hospital birthers (who are assumed to hate midwives, home birth and people who use either). It feels like the potential for debate and rational dialogue is minimized because of this polarization. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised by any of this. Anyway, my response is excerpted below.

A recent heated dialogue between journalists Michelle Goldberg and Jennifer Block about the safety of home birth has been the latest in a recent media flurry about the rise in home births reported by the CDC in January. A New York Times Magazine profile of Ina May Gaskin, arguably our nation’s most famous home birth midwife, was just one of the most mainstream of the recent articles, and seems to have stirred up much scrutiny of the practice.

I feel compelled to dip my toe into the conversation, if only to try and steer it in a different direction. The source of the back and forth between Goldberg and Block centers on this question: “Is home birth safe?” It’s not a new question; in fact it has been debated since the beginning of obstetrics and hospital birth at the turn of the 20th century.

Unfortunately, though, it’s exactly the wrong question to which to be devoting so much air time. A scant share of all women giving birth in the United States do so at home. Despite the reported 29 percent increase in home births nationally between 2004 and 2009, fewer than one percent of births happen out of hospital. While home birth gets much scrutiny, particularly when wealthy white women are seen as forging a new trend by choosing it, the place where the majority of women give birth in the United States — the hospital — goes largely un-scrutinized.

Hospital births do get a lot of attention in birth activist circles (where I spend significant time, as part of my work at Radical Doula). Midwives and doulas will quickly recite the problems with hospital birth, e.g., why high intervention rates (c-sections, inductions) are bad for mother and baby. But outside of that arena, where it’s arguably most needed, the conversation is stalled.

Here is the reason this matters: we are in the midst of a maternity care crisis. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: our maternity care system is broken. Why? Because our maternal and fetal mortality rates are worse than 40 other countries worldwide, despite the fact that we spend more money than anyone else on maternity care. And where is  almost all that care being delivered? In hospitals.

Read the rest here.

Call for Submissions: Saving Our Lives: Black Women, Pregnancy and Childbirth

Black Women Birthing Justice, a group based in Oakland, is putting together a much needed anthology about Black women, pregnancy and childbirth.

Details:

Birthing Justice – Saving Our Lives will be an anthology of critical essays and personal testimonies that explore African American, African, Caribbean and diasporic women’s experiences of childbirth from a radical social justice perspective. We seek writings by midwives, doulas, natural childbirth advocates, reproductive rights activists, moms and moms-to-be, sociologists, feminist and Africana studies scholars, and historians that document state control and medical violence against black pregnant women, revitalize our birthing traditions, and honor and record empowering and sacred birth experiences. We are particularly interested in essays that document activism and resistance.

Read more here, and consider submitting! Such an important conversation.

“Model Minority” myths and maternal health

A belated post about my column last week for RH Reality Check, in response to the Pew Foundation report about the “rise of Asian Americans.”

Last week’s report from the Pew Research Center, The Rise of Asian Americans, has stirred up much controversy. Many advocates in the Asian American and Pacific Islander (API) community are arguing that the findings further a damaging idea about Asian Americans — the “model minority” myth. Advocates have said that these myths, which include the idea that Asian Americans are wealthier, more educated, and happier than other groups (all purported in the Pew report) are damaging because they hide the real challenges that exist for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, in particular for certain national and ethnic minorities that fall under the API umbrella.

One place this “model minority” concept can have negative implications is in discussions of health disparities. Whether due to population size or misconceptions about the health of Asian Americans, we do not often hear about the specific health disparities facing the API community. In the discussions about race and health, people of color are often grouped together, and disparities are talked about in terms of the gap between white people and people of color (Asian Americans included). These simplifications ignore the differences between racial groups, and even within nationalities and ethnicities within those racial subsets. Because of the Pew report, and as part of my focus on race-based health disparities and maternal child health, I decided to look further into the data on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

What we do know is that API women suffer from higher rates of certain negative maternal and child health outcomes than their white counterparts.

Read the rest here.

New column: More on maternity care and race

My second column is up at RHRC, an expansion on my thoughts about the new census numbers and maternal health.

The Center for Medicaid and Medicare Innovation just announced 43 million in funding for new approaches to prenatal care that address the problem of premature births — something that leads to much higher mortality rates, and a host of other complications for newborns. But once again it looks like midwifery will be kept out of this discovery process — the only eligible providers are those who see at least 500 births per year — something that few midwifery practices or birth centers do. These requirements are based on the desire for statistically significant findings, but they might just exclude those who can actually produce the results they are seeking.

It’s hard to imagine that a medical provider who is forced to carry a high volume of clients will be able to provide the care necessary to eliminate race-based health disparities. If Medicaid doesn’t make room for alternative, potentially life-saving maternal health models, we risk endangering the health of generations to come. The challenges are clear, what we require are the innovative solutions. Our nation’s health depends upon it.

I also owe a big thank you to Claudia Booker, who got in touch after I wrote this post, to talk with me about the challenges of making a living as a midwife who serves mostly low-income women of color. Much of our conversation didn’t make it into my column, but it’s an absolutely crucial conversation for us to have: how can midwives make a living and still serve low-income women? Medicaid, only an option in a portion of states, makes it extremely difficult to make a living and stay true to the midwifery model.

Without it, midwives have little chance of reaching women of color, and midwives who want to work exclusively with low-income populations will have to make a living through alternate means. Our providers have to make a living, and if they can’t make a living serving low-income women, we’re screwed.

Thank you Claudia, for pointing out that making midwifery accessible to communities of color also means making the midwifery profession accessible to those who want to serve communities of color. That’s going to require an innovative business model for midwifery.

One thing we talked about was having a diverse clientele–for each midwife to serve clients who can pay the full fees (either through private insurance or out of pocket) and low-income clients via Medicaid or a sliding scale.

The challenge, she said, is racism. Namely that it can be difficult for midwives of color to attract clients who can pay (who are more likely to be white), and these biases make it difficult for all midwives to have a diverse client base. She pointed out that we all want providers who look like us.

I have a lot more to say on the subject. For now, you can read my column, and stay tuned for more.

More on the resignation of midwives of color from MANA

I mentioned a bit about the news that a key group of midwives of color, who were previously involved with the Inner Council at the Midwives Alliance of North America, resigned early this week.

More has been released regarding their resignation, so I wanted to post additional information here.

I realized shortly after posting that I in fact do know quite a few of the midwives who resigned–I just hadn’t been in contact with them lately, and did not know they were so active in MANA. Jessica Roach sent me their letter of resignation, which is also posted on this blog.

The first part is a letter from MANA, seemingly in response to the resignation of the midwives of color. What follows is the resignation letter.

Again, because I am not involved in MANA, I don’t want to comment on the situation specifically, except perhaps to say that I feel much solidarity with the women who have resigned. Claudia Booker, Jennie Joseph and Michelle Peixinho I know to be really incredible midwives and passionate leaders–I trust their opinions and experiences.

Again, for me, the bottom line is this: we can no longer ignore the disproportionately high negative maternal and infant health outcomes faced by communities of color.

And it’s going to be damn hard to address those disparities if we can’t even address racism in our own organizations–especially if that racism means that providers of color choose to leave or are pushed out.

The needs of communities of color in maternity care can no longer be the topic of an interest group, or a caucus, or a breakout session. It has to be THE FOCUS. And my guess is that if we address the needs of communities of color, we’ll probably change maternity care in ways that benefit everyone.

Jessica Roach also wrote a follow-up letter about the resignation that Claudia posted on her facebook page–I’ll share it at the Radical Doula facebook page.

Birth politics in a “majority minority” country

There has been a lot of news lately that keeps tying back to the thread I started a while back, about how midwifery can truly be accessible to communities of color.

First, last week we had a big media splash with new census data that shows the majority of babies being born in the US today are not white. This has been true for quite some time in certain parts of the country, like California, but now it’s a national fact. Demographers have been predicting for a long time that we’re heading in this direction, so it’s not a surprise. But it does make for good headlines, and stirs the pot of zenophobia and racist panic.

It also makes extremely clear how important it is that we focus on the needs of communities of color when it comes to maternal health. It’s no longer about an interest group! It’s no longer about the minority! Dealing with race-based health disparities in maternal health is actually about the majority of births. Wow.

Feels like a game-changer to me.

Unfortunately for midwives and birth activists, women of color are still a very small minority of those accessing out of hospital birth. A bigger slice is likely accessing in hospital midwifery care (anyone know those stats?) but we’ve got a long way to go.

Then, yesterday, the news that the Midwives of Color contingent of MANA, Midwives Alliance of North America, resigned in protest. Still waiting to see a statement from MOC about what prompted this move, but MANA already acknowledged it on their facebook page:

It is with heavy hearts that the Midwives Alliance today received the resignation of several key members of the MANA Midwives of Color (MOC) Section, including the Chair. MANA is fully aware of its history of privilege and the issues related to cultural and systemic hierarchies in decision-making. We are committed to working towards a structural change in the way our organization operates in light of the repeated failures to address the needs of our midwives of color. We recognize the disproportionate impact of perinatal disparities and poor outcomes for women, infants and communities of color. MANA has an ongoing responsibility to address these issues in order to fulfill our mission of providing a professional organization for all midwives.

I’m not involved in MANA, I’m not a midwife, I haven’t talked to anyone from the MOC. (I did attend a MANA conference back in 2005/2006 in Mexico City). I don’t know the specifics of what went down, what prompted this major move.

What I do know is this: We have to center the needs of communities of color in maternal health. The disparities alone should have been enough of a reason. Black women are FOUR times more likely to die during childbirth than white women. FOUR TIMES. But of course, that’s how racism works.It perpetuates systems of oppression by marginalizing the needs of those most in need.

But now we’re no longer the minority. Now, the health of the nation very literally depends on our ability to tackle race-based health disparities, particularly in maternal health.

I personally believe that the midwifery model of care is a big piece of the puzzle when it comes to answering the problem of race-based maternal health disparities. And a big piece of the puzzle of making midwifery care accessible in communities of color? Midwives of color.

So I sincerely hope that MANA, or whatever other governing bodies exist in the midwifery world, can get their priorities straight, and do what work needs to be done.

The numbers don’t lie–and they point in a clear direction. We need to be putting all of our attention on race-based maternal health disparities. All of it. It’s a concern of the majority now.

Aboriginal Doula Training offered in British Columbia

Logo for Aboriginal Doula Training

Via facebook, information about an Aboriginal Doula Training in British Columbia this May.

I’m always on the look out for new doula trainings, and this one also hits a theme I think is so important–training members of marginalized communities to provide doula care to those in their own communities.

Doulas, by the way, are not a modern invention. The term “doula” used in the way we do certainly is, but the practice of trained people supporting folks during labor certainly is not. Perhaps I’m repeating myself, but before birth was the domain of doctors and hospitals, most people gave birth in their communities, with the help of family and trained support people, midwives, healers, etc.

Native and First Nations communities have experienced extreme violence in the form of genocide on behalf of North American governments, colonizers and people. This history shows up in the horrific rates of violence, maternal and fetal mortality, substance abuse, among other things. Raeanne Madison wrote about the importance of doula care in Native communities in this guest post, so I’m glad to see it being promoted (and funded) by Canadian institutions.

There was a 2010 report about the impact of doula care in First Nations communities in BC. There is even a “Aboriginal Doula Advisory Committee.” I am excited by the power of the doula model of care to allow community members to serve one another. You don’t have to be an outsider to be a doula–in fact, being a member of the community likely makes your work as a doula a thousand times better. This sums it up pretty well:

“For First Nations families, doulas have the potential to make positive contributions to situations where women are birthing away from their home communities,” NAHO said. “They can act as communicators and advocates for the birthing family, and can facilitate incorporating traditional practices into the childbirth process, if the family desires this.”

The deadline to apply for the training is February 24. All costs are covered by the program. Details here.

For a list of doula trainings, check out my resource page.

Increase in home birth leaves women of color behind

Last week, the CDC released data proving what those of us in the birth activist community have noticed for years: home birth is on the rise. They evaluated home birth numbers from 1990-2009.

After a decline from 1990 to 2004, the percentage of U.S. births that occurred at home increased by 29%, from 0.56% of births in 2004 to 0.72% in 2009.

There are many reasons for this increase, from Ricki Lake and the Business of Being Born, to studies that show serious problems with our maternal and fetal mortality rate. Also midwifery is on the rise, and CPMs have been successfully pushing for recognition at the state level.

To those of us who support the midwifery model of care and believe that leaving the hospital setting is a good idea for many low-risk births, this is great news. It’s also still disappointing that the overall percentage is so low–less than 1% of all births! Although when you look at it on a state level, there are places (like Montana and Oregon) where the rates are double the national average.

CDC graph of home births broken down by race/ethnicity

But, as we’ve come to expect, when you examine these numbers based on race and ethnicity, the picture is very different:

For non-Hispanic white women, home births increased by 36%, from 0.80% in 2004 to 1.09% in 2009. About 1 in every 90 births for non-Hispanic white women is now a home birth. Home births are less common among women of other racial or ethnic groups.

About 90% of the total increase in home births from 2004 to 2009 was due to the increase among non-Hispanic white women.

The chart above shows just how dramatic the disparity is. I addressed some of my thoughts about what’s behind this gap in this post, which generated some good discussion in the comment thread.

I think we’ll see that racial gap diminish when midwifery advocates include people of color in their work. When more midwives and doulas of color are leading these initiatives, and also when public funding for out-of-hospital birth care is addressed.

The other disparity that the CDC study points out is a geographic one, which may also mirror the racial disparities:

Map of US with percentage home births by state

The percentage of home births was generally higher in the northwestern and lower in the southeastern United States.

This Northern/Southern disparity is true for many health outcomes, and can probably be attributed to demographic differences, as well as a political climate that more favors midwifery and out of hospital birth in the Northwest. It’s clear we need more strong midwifery advocates in the South–and that would also be a place where it would make sense for people of color to take the helm.

We know that a shift as radical as bringing maternity back out of the hospital is going to take decades. It was a decades-long,  well-funded campaign that brought birth into the purview of doctors and hospitals to begin with. The good news is we are moving in the right direction, but if we leave women of color behind, we’re not going to achieve the wide-spread culture shift we’re working towards.