The Oldest Profession (A Tribute to Ina May Gaskin)

“My most fervent prayer for all pregnant women is that they read this book and heed its wisdom. In doing so, they will remember their women’s wisdom and never forget it. Thank you, Ina May, from the bottom of my heart for writing this guide to natural childbirth. This information can change the world” Christine Northrup M.D.

By the fifth month of my first pregnancy Ina May’s book had made its way into my hands, but I had not yet found a midwife. When I finally did come into contact with the last remaining independent midwife in this rural area, she was everything she was supposed to be. I was twenty four, and she fulfilled her  unwritten job description with grace, with a special emphasis on “mothering the mother-to-be”.  Midwifery is surely a calling.

In patriarchal society such women risk their livelihoods, their reputations and even their lives. Incarceration is a risk they take with every birth they attend. They consciously fight the patriarchal medical machine in order to be allowed access to birthing women at all, without male interference. One mistake is all it takes for them to be shut down for good.

In the past, millions of midwives were accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake. Their ‘crime’ was that they helped women during childbirth. Trying to relieve women’s suffering meant that they were evil because, according to Christianity, labour was women’s payback, for…  eating an apple.  Labour pain couldn’t possibly be there to inform the birthing woman on how to best position her body in order to get the baby out… Definitely not. Clearly it exists because women were born to be punished by a fairy that lives in the sky. (Yes, it bears repeating: men are insane)

These very special women practice the oldest profession out of love, which means that when they are left to manage their craft independently (i.e when they are not subordinate to a doctor) they rarely, if ever, make mistakes. By contrast, their brothers, the Ob/Gyns, are taught at medical school that the birth process is, by definition,  pathology, one big mistake waiting to happen. Women’s bodies are—according to their textbooks— faulty machines, liable to breaking down, and require firm guidance by male hands before they can even get to first base.

A good midwife sees a potential problem long before it has time to escalate. A midwife worth her salt will also focus on diet during pregnancy; whereas  Ob/Gyns are taught that diet does not influence pregnancy and birth,  and that the baby ‘takes all it needs from the mother’s body’. As incongruous as it sounds, this is indeed what men teach each other about women’s bodies.

At one point in my first pregnancy I showed signs of the potentially lethal toxemia (protein in the urine). Whereas with an OB/Gyn I would have been put on the “at risk” register, and wheeled in for a C-section, my midwife sat me down very sternly and told me, ‘We’re going to go through your diet with a fine tooth comb. What are you eating?’

She made me write a list. It turns out I had been adding soy sauce (which is full of sodium) to salted fish in the morning, and this had affected the urine samples (I was too embarrassed to mention the Big Mac and coke I sometimes ate en route to my check-ups!). She forced me to cut out certain other foods as well, and within a week the signs of the potentially deadly toxemia had disappeared.

I will write the story of that first birth another time, maybe in my next post, but suffice it to say, it was  beautiful. But I would never have taken that step of trusting my own body had it not been for Ina May Gaskin.

Over thirty years of experience as a midwife have not lessened my awe and respect for the efficiency and beautiful design of the female body as expressed in labour and birth. In fact, the years only increase my sense of wonder about how well our bodies can work—given the right circumstances. The outcomes of our births at The Farm Midwifery Centre demonstrate how rare it is for complications and difficulties to occur when women are properly prepared for birth and when technological interventions are kept to a minimum—that is, only used when necessary. Ninety-four percent of women gave birth at home or at our birth center. Fewer than two percent had cesarians. Fewer than one percent had their babies delivered by forceps or vacuum extraction. (Ina May Gaskin’s Guide to Childbirth.)

Her book is scientific and detailed. Topics include how drugs disrupt hormone regulation during childbirth, and how this increases a woman’s pain because the body’s natural painkiller (endorphins) isn’t able to function properly. Fear also plays an important factor in this:

We need to remember that mothers who are afraid tend to secrete the hormones that delay or inhibit birth. This is true of all mammals and is part of nature’s design. Those who are not terrified are more likely to secrete in abundance the hormones that make labor and birth easier and less painful—sometimes even pleasurable. [Page 149]

It stands to reason that if you sense a predator in your midst, your body shuts down and refuses to give birth. Women’s labours will be stalled in any hospital where male professionals, or any male at all for that matter, including receptionists, janitors, or husbands, are allowed contact with birthing women. When the labour stalls, it is declared by the hospital that she is not “progressing” quickly enough. This ‘failure to progress’ takes place because she (correctly) senses that her life is in danger. That’s when the surgeon’s knives get whipped out.

The media also teaches women to fear birth, through hospital dramas. Dramatic tension in a movie plot requires a mishap or a death. Deaths do occur in birth, and North America does indeed have one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world— higher than so-called developing countries such as Kenya (California has a particularly high maternal mortality rate!), but those deaths take place in hospital, when the birth has been presided over by a male ob/gyn. If he has followed protocol to the rote (i.e carried out as much medical intervention as possible) then he will not be held responsible for her death.

As a rule of thumb, midwives tend to not let their women die.

It is the height of irony that many women submit themselves to the hospitals because they are frightened of labour pain, and have not only been misinformed about their bodies’ capabilities, but also about the ‘skills’ and ‘knowledge’ of the medical institutions and professionals that purport to save them from themselves. They are never told, for example, that:

Labour pain is a special type of pain: It almost always happens without causing any damage to the body.

When avoidance of pain becomes the major emphasis of childbirth care, the paradoxical effect is that more women have to deal with pain after their babies are born. Frequent use of epidural anesthesia drives up the rates of C-section and vacuum-extractor and forceps births. Epidurals cause long-term back-ache ain approximately one woman in every five. Sometimes the use of forceps and vacuum extractors results in injury to the baby or the mother. Intravenous lines are often painful as long as they are in place and for a couple of days after they are removed. The more you move and disturb that plastic in your vein, the more it hurts. Women who have cesarian operations must have a catheter inserted in their urethra before the surgery is performed. This hollow tube will be kept in place for at least twenty four hours. While the catheter is in place, many women experience a constant urge to urinate. Of course, since they are constantly ‘peeing’ there is no way to satisfy this urge. Cesarians usually involve the placement of a surgical drain sewed in the part of the wound most likely to efficiently drain away blood and lymph from the abdominal cavity Women find the removal of this drain on the third day particularly painful…. Finally, the formation of intestinal gas after any abdominal surgery (including caesarean operation) is acutely painful for women. Postsurgery soreness can interfere with her handling of her newborn baby. Each of the procedures and conditions I have mentioned above involves pain after birth.

The woman who gives birth without pain interventions, on the other hand, is more apt to be through with pain when her baby is born. Often she is euphoric, buoyed on the hormones released after the birth of her baby. Oxytocin, the love hormone, is released with the final stretch of the perineum around the baby’s head and body….Pain, if present seconds earlier, is often erased…

This is just the tip of the iceberg of how medical interventions destroy women’s chances of a decent, safe and calm labour. Read Ina May’s book and weep. Drugs such as Cytotec, designed to induce labour,  can cause haemorrhage and extreme pain because the contractions run too close together (leading to the inevitable C-section, and often, death). Ob/Gyns have freely admitted in writing that they prefer to induce women for the simple reason that labours often start at night, which is inconvenient for them because it interrupts their life schedules.

Episiotomy is still routinely carried out in many countries, when research shows that women are more likely to suffer third degree tears upon receiving one. In other words, the episiotomy (supposedly done in order to “help get the baby out”) encourages the skin to tear all the way up inside, sometimes right through to the bowel, causing incontinence. The woman will be told afterwards that her episiotomy was necessary, and that it saved her baby’s life, but of course there is no evidence at all to show that this is the case: in other words, her baby could well have been fine without it.  There is, however, plenty of evidence to show that the procedure causes unnecessary health problems for the mother… whereas if the birth attendant had been patient, they might have witnessed the perineum open slowly like a flower with each push of the baby’s head. No need for cutting and tearing at all. No need for meddlesome interference in the birth process. No need for anything, except patience.

The list is endless. After the baby is out, many ob/gyns are likely to pull on the chord, which is still inside the mother. This sort of meddlesome interference can cause haemorrhage because the chord is still attached to the placenta inside the woman’s body. All that is needed is for the woman to breastfeed her newborn. When she does so, her womb contracts which pushes the placenta out naturally. No need for the drugs that are often given to “encourage” the placenta to come out. In fact, each time she breastfeeds, her womb contracts further, actively preventing haemorrhage. However, in many hospitals the woman is not allowed to breastfeed immediately after birth, and the infant may be whisked away to the nursery, or for tests.

In cases where the mother does haemorrhage, pertinent questions such as “Did you allow her to breastfeed to help her womb to close?” will not be asked of her Ob/Gyn. He will be let off scot free for his ignorance.

Women’s wisdom tells us that in 2013 it is safer for a woman to give birth in the woods, than it is for her to go to those large houses  where the genocide of women is taking place. Women can look at the evidence themselves and draw their own conclusions, but all I’ll say is that when the time came for me to birth my babies I put my money where my mouth was, by staying far far away from hospitals.

Part 2 next week


15 thoughts on “The Oldest Profession (A Tribute to Ina May Gaskin)

  1. Great and interesting post. I just got accepted into college and plan to become a nurse and midwife. The dangerous modern birthing system has always bothered me and I decided I wanted to help women birth their children in a safe and positive environment. I hate hospitals after volunteering at one and seeing how crappy they treat their patients sometimes. Especially the elderly and females. The male doctors just reeked of arrogance and stupidity.


    • IT’s great that you intend to become a nurse and midwife aliya 🙂 After giving birth, I really wanted to train and become one myself, but I’d already finished my education and it really wasn’t worth me going back to school (and I had a baby by then, of course! Highly impractical)
      If I could turn the clock back, I’d train to become a midwife:) Good LUCK!

  2. I feel I should add a bit of radfem analyis here:

    Clearly, getting pregnant and giving birth is not a radfem strategy! And so opting for a midwife as opposed to an OB/Gyn can probably be termed as a “Harm reduction strategy”.
    However, there is and added element to birth, something that ( I believe) perhaps shouldn’t be placed into the same category as other harm -reduction strategies. I’m not exactly sure what it is, or whether I can articulate it, but I think it’s about asserting that women’s bodies are not only very different to men’s, not only better and more beautifully designed, but also that the vast amount of women who die in childbirth are not dying of CHILDBIRTH per se, but as a result of the genocidal practices inflicted upon them in hospital, and even before they get to hospital, when they aren’t given decent information about diet and excercise.

    Some cultures work their genocidal practices into the woman’s pre-natal experience, for example by prohibiting certain nutrient-rich foods etc as part of their “tradition”.

    I do think it’s important to dispel this myth that women’s bodies are designed to kill us. They DO kill us, under patriarchy, but this is not inevitable. Childbirth was never meant to kill us. They’ve just made it so.

    It’s also important to point out that IVF births are a completely different kettle of fish and women who go down this route are at a far greater risk of complications, and yet in the statistics those who conceive via IVF are lumped together with women who conceive naturally, when the potential for pathology in IVF births is far greater.

  3. when i was in high school we were all shown a video of a woman giving birth in biology class. the thing i remember most was the doctor cutting her perineum with scissors, and really hacking away at it because its very thick tissue. i still remember the sound of it, it was awful. and it was just passed off as a normal part of the birthing process instead of harmful patriarchal propaganda rising to the level of sexualized abuse particularly targeting the female students who were forced to watch it, since it more like torture porn than birth really. at school! honestly it enrages me to think about it. i wouldnt be surprised if my mom had signed a permission slip for me to see it (and had the ability to decline on by behalf or her own) but not many parents are going to do refuse to sign it are they? lest they be branded religious nutjobs, and their children be treated the same way. plus my mom was a labor and delivery nurse and wouldnt have thought twice about it, having seen literally thousands of episiotomies herself. i would honestly consider this grooming now, grooming high school girls for misogyny and institutional and medical abuse. i would say it was “unbelievable” except its not, plus i was there!

    • That sounds fucking awful FCM. No, we never had to watch anything like that at school, as far as I recall. (dunno, though, I could’ve blocked it out). But yes, god, watching a woman’s perinium being cut. WHAT THE FUCK??? And everybody sitting around watching it? The boys too? Sometimes I read something that makes me unabashedly hate men, and I think reading your last comment was one of those incidences.

      • yes as i recall it was a mixed group. the last time i remember being sex-segregated in school was in 8th grade for “health” class where we were given the PIV grooming i mean the sex talk. the birthing video was in 9th grade, and like all 9-12 grade it was mixed. we were mixed before that too for everything *except* the PIV grooming, because equality. yay! makes me wonder what was going on in the boys classes. im sure the male health i mean GYM teachers were very pro-feminist about it. not.

        sorry for the typos above, oops!

  4. also i believe that somewhere on the blogs theres another woman describing the episiotomy as being a hacking-away with scissors and there being a sound….its totally true. i think that woman was attending her sisters or sister in laws birth. i dont remember where i saw that, but i think there are a lot of us out here who are completely traumatized by this and that its never talked about. the fun fems had a discussion at one point about “medical rape” meaning that docs and others just go at the birthing woman, putting things inside her etc without asking first or telling her whats going on. well ok, i can see their point since the fun fems have a problem with “nonconsensual” penetrations…HOWEVER is the doc telling you “ok im going to start hacking away at you now” or whatever going to make it less traumatizing or dangerous overall? the fear part of it is huge as you say, and part of the medical standard of care is to not give patients TMI so that its distressing for them bc it makes the medical intervention more dangerous. and sometimes because of the docs own negligence and arrogance they manufacture “emergencies” so that they have to intervene quickly, and its not really realistic to expect that they are going to tell the “patient” every little thing thats going on when they are trying to save TWO LIVES (the baby’s being the important one of course, and babies cant understand a word youre saying anyway….) but the man-ufacturing of the emergency is never discussed, particularly in the context of birthing women.

    hospitals *are* the big houses where genocide of women is taking place, as you say. they really really are.

    • Some bright spark (I’m guesssing some bright *male* spark [lol ) decided that it’s better to cut the perinium with scissors, rather than with a scalpel.
      Scalpels are used in all surgical procedures except episiotomy… because patriarchy.
      Now here’s a harm reduction strategy for you: some midwives are fighting for scalpels to be used in hospital episiotomies instead of scissors, because they’re slightly less painful.

      • omg! i didnt know that. i wonder why — maybe scissors are safer for the baby? i seem to recall the head was like *right there* while the woman was being cut….or is there really no reason for the scissor-preference except that it hurts the woman a little bit more? that wouldnt surprise me of course, im just asking.

      • That could be the justification for it, yes I think I’ve heard that (the other side of the scissors are blunt). But how inept do you really have to be to cut a baby’s head, when you’re trying to cut a perinium. You’d have to have really big, fat incompetent male hands to make a mistake like that.

    • Also, many episiotomies are given even before the head begins stretching the perinium. Some doctors used to firmly believe in giving the woman a good cut “down there” before the baby started descending.

      Anyway, my midwife told me she was going to use special oils to smooth the perinium over the baby’s head, but the baby came too quick so she didn’t have time for all that!

  5. There is this site called Hurt by Homebirth I think it may be propaganda for the medical system but it would be cool to have your opinion. Run by this lady: I am only young but I have always been afraid and feel violated just thinking about childbirth I think I have a phobia I think how they touch u and just males touching me in general would make me feel like I was being raped. I dont ever want to have kids but yeah. I wouldnt have the trust to put into a midwife either since I dont count on them all being caring towards me especially being mentally ill. I emailed the author of this book: and the idea is really empowering being independent and free from other people who think they know me better than I do. In my own high school bio curse the video on childbirth said that ‘childbirth is inherently dangerous’ this is what this skeptical ob person repeats too. They must teach that as fact in med school. Not sure I agree. My mom was made to feel like a bad mom when she had me because I wouldnt ‘latch on’ and she found breastfeeding harmful. This was in a hospital. I dont think anyone should be shamed for not wanting to breastfeed its a choice and I dont mean that in the funfem way I know I couldnt I will always be on drugs like anti psychotics they probably wont want a baby to take. I dont like how the s ob makes all midwives sound like maniacs if I want anyone away from my vagina it would be a man!

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