Jan’s Corner

Midwives under Fire

We’ve had a period of relative calm in the North American midwifery community since 2002. In an issue of Midwifery Today E-News from July 2001 ( http://www.midwiferytoday.com/enews/enews0329.asp ), Sandra Stine, CNM, wrote about the history of midwives under fire:

“I am thinking about Yvonne Cryns, Nan Koehler, Abby Odam, the granny midwives and every other traditional birth attendant in this country who has been crucified by the AMA or another source,” Stine stated. “Wonderful, loving, competent midwives have been jailed, lost their homes, spent thousands of dollars defending themselves, or were placed under house arrest while serving families competently. The AMA (American Medical Association) has a track record of prosecuting midwives in almost every state!”

In July of 2002, Gloria Lemay was imprisoned for contempt of court in Canada. A few months later, Mennonite midwife Freida Miller was arrested and imprisoned for contempt of court in Ohio. Thanks to easy Internet access in 2002, the stories of these imprisonments—and of the events that built up to them—were relayed around the globe. Both women were mature adults and both went to prison knowing they had widespread support in the international community. They went to prison with their heads held high and their supporters worked behind the scenes, fundraising and researching to free them. Money and well wishes flowed in from all over the world. North American midwives had entered a new era.

While in prison, Lemay learned that she would be given an award for being “the woman in Canada who had made the biggest contribution to midwifery care in the year 2002.” (Women’s Voice Award). The story of her incarceration can be found at: http://www.compleatmother.com/articles2/gloria_lemay.htm

To read more about the trial and imprisonment of Freida Miller, visit

Lemay is in great company. There are midwives in more than one country who have gone to jail for serving mothers and babies in birth and usually on trumped-up charges. These maverick women serve those who are in jail with them who are pregnant or have babies. In Russia, jailed mothers keep their babies with them. On a recent visit to Russia we heard about a midwife, a mother of six who was jailed for nine months. I heard that she just took care of the mothers and babies who were in prison. I understand that she is out now, but her homebirth practice was essentially taken away from her. So sad for the mothers and babies she served for 17 years. Gloria cannot call herself a midwife and I wonder when the province of British Columbia stole that word. Midwife was a word long before BC became a province. I wonder when the same thing will happen in the US.

One of the reasons California was so keen to get a midwifery regulation law was that several homebirth midwives were jailed there. So there is being under fire and there is really being put to the test with actual bars that try to hold you back. (Midwives can never really be held back.) Others have been persecuted into stopping their practice or getting their CNM certification so they wouldn’t be persecuted in the same way. At least they can keep doing homebirths!

Perhaps we reached a turning point in 2002 in North America. Perhaps the imprisonment of these two midwives was the end of putting North American midwives behind bars. But the persecution of midwives continues in other areas. In 2010, the hot spot seems to be Australia. Many homebirth midwives have lost their licenses on that continent and there is a coroner’s inquest scheduled to investigate the death of an infant born at home in Adelaide, Australia. But we live in an era of instant communication. Thanks to online social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, as well as basic e-mail, we can reach out to midwives even in distant lands and support them through these archaic investigations.

— by Jan Tritten and Gloria Lemay

— Gloria Lemay is a lecturer, midwifery educator and traditional birth attendant in Vancouver, BC, Canada. She specializes in VBAC and waterbirth. She has served birthing women since 1976 and is an advisory board member of Intact America. She wants her tombstone to read, “She spoke up for babies.”

— Jan Tritten is the founder, editor-in-chief and mother of Midwifery Today magazine. She became a midwife in 1977 after the amazing homebirth of her second daughter. Her mission is to make loving midwifery care the norm for birthing women and their babies throughout the world. Meet Jan at our conferences around the world, or join her online, as she works to transform birth practices around the world.

Jan’s blog: community.midwiferytoday.com/blogs/jan/default.aspx
Jan on Twitter: twitter.com/jantritten
Midwifery Today on Facebook: facebook.com/midwiferytoday
International Alliance of Midwives on Facebook: facebook.com/IAMbirth
Originally published in Midwifery Today E News. http://www.midwiferytoday.com/enews/enews1217.asp

Prison food for thought

In a never-ending quest to make prisons “cost effective”, our government decided to turn the food services over to private enterprise. This means that the service is provided in the skimpiest way possible without having outbreaks of scurvy. I found it bizarre when I was in high security (about a week) because the food would come on trolley carts with covered trays, very much like hospital food presentation. Each woman took her tray and opened it. Of course, the first time, you anticipate that it will be something interesting but you soon learn that it will be two slices of bread which you can then toast in the unit toaster. The toast will be accompanied by fast food packets of jam, sugar, powdered creamer, instant coffee, tea bag (all of which come in handy for trading). I quickly learned to describe myself as “vegetarian” so I could occasionally get a processed cheese slice and sidestep the “meat of dubious origins” which came with dinner.

Things changed after that first week in high security when I was moved to a minimum security unit. This place was still like a bad summer camp but the food improved somewhat. A small team of prisoners prepared the food under the watchful eye of a Filipino woman named Anna. They seemed like a happy team and they made food that was heavy on the pasta and potatoes (women who are coming off drug addictions need a lot of carbs, plus they are cheap). Eggs were more plentiful and there was a concerted effort to make the food appetizing. There was always a table with a giant bowl of salad from which we could help ourselves and more fruit was available, too.

Four women ate at each table in the dining room and the guards ate with us. The whole group ate very rapidly as it was considered rude to dawdle over your food because there was another team of women who had to clean the tables and sweep the floor after the meal. Although this fast eating was tense, we were allowed to come back into the dining room after the cleanup crew had finished and make ourselves a tea and relax at the tables. It became my habit to bring a book or a newspaper and sit alone to enjoy a hot cup of tea for about 45 minutes after the evening meal.

One evening when I was alone in the dining room, the cook, Anna, came out of the kitchen for the first time and approached my table. She put a small paper on the table and when I took it and looked, I could see it was her photo and it was a midwifery license from the Philippines. I couldn’t quite compute it and she smiled and sat down.
She explained to me that she had come to Canada expecting to practice her profession but could never get accepted by the midwifery licensing body. She then applied for and got the cooking job in the women’s prison. She said that she just loved it. She shopped very carefully to get us the best food possible on the tight budget she was given. She knew her nutrition and wanted us all to be healthy. Her team would say a prayer over the food before beginning meal preparation. She wanted me to know that she had read about my difficulties with the licensing body in the newspapers and could understand what I was going through. Even though she couldn’t attend births in Canada, she had found a way to support women in an unlikely place and she did her work in the prison with pride and passion. I felt that my brief interaction with her was another of the miracles that I encountered within those walls. . . a midwife was watching out for me and she fed my body and soul by reaching out to me.

Related post: http://www.glorialemay.com/blog/?p=11

My mental health worker

When I tell stories from my 2 month prison stay in 2002, I’m always told that I need to write a book about it.  Being convicted of contempt of court and spending 2 months in a B.C. prison was not something I’d like to repeat but I do think that I probably had the best stay in prison of anyone on the planet.  The context I created for myself when I was driving there in the back seat of a sheriff’s car was “I am the possibility of contribution.  Contributing to others and being contributed to by others.”  That context sustained me and constantly reminded me not to fall into the familiar, comfortable mode of being “Little Miss Social Worker”.  In hindsight, I now know that the social worker mode that I easily slip into could have gotten me killed in that place.  Instead, I approached every interaction with staff and inmates as “What’s in it for me and how can I be generous?”

My biggest fear in facing incarceration was medical examination.  You hear stories about body cavity searches for drugs and I was horrified that some prison matron was going to put on rubber gloves and examine my sacred cavities!  It turned out that those searches are not done in B.C. women’s prisons.  Apparently, there was some discussion about training the guards to do those types of exams and the decision was made that it was too dreadful for all concerned and that no employee would do it.  Lucky for me.  The only medical examination I ever had in my time there was to have my blood pressure taken by a nurse and her machine didn’t work so even that was thwarted. 

I was surprised to realize that prison is actually a drug and alcohol treatment centre.  Every day, the majority of women on my unit would be called to “Health Care” to be given their methadone doses or anti depressant meds.  A few days after arriving on Unit “C” (apparently the “C” stands for crazy) I was surprised to hear my name called over the loudspeaker and to be told to report to “Health Care”.  I got my pass from the guard and headed out through a myriad of hallways and locked doors to the clinic.  This part was like in the movies where a television surveillance camera tracks your movements through the prison and doors are unlocked and relocked by remote.  There’s no danger of getting lost because you’re being watched and instructed all along the route.  When I arrived at the correct door, there was another woman waiting with the terrible open sores on her face that told me she was a cocaine addict.  We waited in the hall together for the next instructions.  Her instructions came to go to another location and I looked through the glass window of the locked office door for awhile.  Everything in prison is “hurry up and wait”.  It’s a meditation in giving up your own self importance and becoming one with the herd. Your opinion and desires are irrelevant and you do not have any time schedule that needs to be considered—it often seemed like I was back in high school.  Now, a man was approaching the door on the office side.  Not only a man, which was rare in this women’s prison, but a nicely dressed young man with a very lurching walk that i attributed to cerebral palsy.  He opened the door and said in an afflicted slur of words “Hello, I’m Robert, your mental health worker”.  This was a complete surprise to me, I had a mental health worker for the first time in my life and it was Robert.  I followed him into his office and was curious to see what would follow.  There was a glow about him and a kindness in his eyes that shone through.  I couldn’t imagine what fate had conspired to bring the two of us together in this room.  He began our interview.  There was a long list of questions to be answered:  Do you have children? Are they in custody? Level of education? Do you have communication with your parents? Married, divorced, single? Will you have a home to go to when you leave prison?  On and on it went and I began to realize that the picture I was painting for him of my life must be so different from what he normally heard.  Somewhere in the questions, the fact that Robert spoke differently became invisible.  It simply dropped away that he had any cerebral palsy affects at all.  We were two human beings communicating.  When he had finished asking all the questions, I said to him “You must hear some terrible stories when you ask these things.”  I knew this because the stories I had heard were absolutely appalling and I wasn’t even asking probing questions. In response, his eyes welled up with tears and he said “Gloria, it would break your heart.  No one ever loved them.”  It now makes my eyes well with tears as I write this.  There I was in what should have been a God-forsaken place but I was with an angel in the body.  As we sat there and talked together, it was clear to both of us that the only thing that separated us from the others in prison is that we had been loved by our families.  Yes, life had dealt him a body that had challenges and my chosen life path had landed me in prison but those things can be risen above when you’ve been loved.  And, then, what do you do with all the love you’ve been given?  You have to serve others, of course.  That’s what Robert does in that prison.  He’s one of the several angels I met in there.  I think about him often and he’ll always be MY mental health worker.