Interview with Gloria Lemay (1999)

Following is an excerpt from Rape of the Twentieth Century which is no longer in print.
Interview by Leilah McCracken.

Q&A with Gloria Lemay

Gloria Lemay is the only non-registered birth attendant in the province of British Columbia still serving parturient women; all others have been terrorized out of practice by a monopolizing, litigious, government-sanctioned midwifery cartel. Ms. Lemay has been in service for over twenty years, and is currently the most popular midwife in B.C.

Q- Why did you become a midwife?

A- Because having my first homebirth was a life-changing experience for me. Up until that time I had worked in fields primarily involving men; and
when I gave birth to my daughter, I really claimed my womanhood – it changed my direction completely into wanting to work with women.

Q- What does birth mean to you?

A- it’s one of the few opportunities we have in life for transformation. The suck of life is that people can change- that change will happen over time.
We come to believe that because there is a lot of common agreement around it; and transformation is expected to happen in a predictable time-frame. Yet in birth, a transformation happens outside of time – outside of time and space. It’s not something you can repeat or do again; it’s actually a change of substance. I was transformed in my births, and creating room for other people to experience that is really important to me.

Q- Sometimes you call yourself a “private birth attendant”. Why don’t you like to be called “midwife” anymore?

A- Legally managed and sanctioned midwifery tends to become invisible in the system very quickly. Working outside the system is what I do, and I am not attached to calling myself a midwife- it’s a lovely word to my ears, but my definition of the word seems to be quite different from the legislators in my province: to them, “obstetrical nursing” is equatable with “midwifery”.

Q- What qualities make a good midwife?

A- Patience number one. And an ability to be in true service- to put yourself aside and see what is really needed in the other person. Love in the
heart… It helps to be smart. One should be able to stay calm,and be reliable in the face of emergency.

Q- What is the role of modern medicine in childbirth?

A- Mostly, to get the hell out of it. In a small percentage of cases, modern medicine can make a life-saving difference. But the harm that doctors have inflicted on the women of North America for no reason is like a holocaust. A good analogy would be if you sent your kids to the local swimming pool on ten different days in the summer. If your child was given complete CPR, oxygen, and a drug injection on nine out of the ten days he went there because the Lifeguard “thought” he was drowning, and he wasn’t, you’d get pretty upset. The fact that normal, healthy young women walk into the hospital to have a baby, and 90% of them came out looking like they’ve had major trauma, is ridiculous.

Q-Do you feel a backlash happening against the homebirth movement?

A- I actually think that there’s less as we approach the year 2000. We’ve gotten to a point where alternatives- and practices that have endured over time- are becoming increasingly accepted. Did you know that twenty-five percent of people buy organic food? When an idea reaches critical mass, what was the idea of a few people suddenly becomes everybody’s idea. The day is coming quickly when the women who have been persecuted as midwives will be rewarded for
their perseverance with very busy practices.

Q- What is your single greatest fear regarding childbirth?

A- My natural fear is having a baby death, because of the pain that the parents go through. That fear keeps me smart, prepared, and keeps me working
preventatively, so parents have the best chance possible of having a live baby. I also fear that one of my clients will have a cesarean section- or a
forceps delivery- or any of the other interventions that I hate.

Q- How many women should be getting cesarean sections?

A- No more than three percent.

Q- Why aren’t you a registered midwife?

A- I believe in joining and giving my membership to organizations whose actions reflect my own beliefs regarding their actions and stated
philosophies. The British Columbia College of Midwives is not an organization to which I’d give my name or my money. They see new midwives as a threat to their monopoly of the homebirth market– I was not welcomed or supported as a new midwife, to say the least.

Q- Is there anything positive in the medical model of birth?

A- There are a lot of positive things about it, and if midwives are smart, they’d take all the positives, duplicate them, and compete strongly on the things that are not positive. Taking things like clean fingernails, reliability (there’s always someone there when women show up at the birth captivity center), making sure there’s enough oxygen in the oxygen tank, always having lots of sterile gauze- there are certain things that are useful, and conscious, that doctors and nurses do that midwives can, and should, duplicate. On the other hand, we can compete very strongly with doctors and nurses because midwives can do all those things easily, plus offer preventative measures, womanly wisdom, and our own experience in giving birth. We can also offer
a lot of tricks of the trade that doctors don’t know about- plus a gentler approach.

Q- What is the role of men in childbirth?

A- To protect the women.

Q-What is your most important job as a birth attendant?

A- To create a safe environment for the mother and baby.

Q- What bothers you most about TV’s portrayal of childbirth?

A- In order to sell commercial space, whatever’s being presented has to have a dramatic element. Birth in real life is not dramatic- it is sacred, moving, alive and earthy- but it’s not something that would make a dramatic screenplay. Birth has to be warped a bit to make it saleable to commercial interests. Unfortunately, people get their general perceptions of birth, police work and legal matters- and their perceptions of those who work within these professions- through what they see on TV. Midwives, police officers and lawyers will tell you that the every day work of their businesses is nothing at all like what is seen on TV- but people never believe it.

Q- What questions do you hear most from families, and how do you respond to them?

A- Mostly- “How can we avoid being involved with the medical system in any way?” They want to avoid transfer to the hospital, having a doppler used to detect fetal heart tones ultrasonically, diabetes screenings…
Most people who come to see me are referred by friends- so they’ve already heard all about me. They already know that I’m out of the system. In the course of prenatal visits, we get to know each other, trust each other and understand each other’s vulnerabilities. This all pays dividends at the birth because everyone has only one focus- the highest good of mother and baby.

Q- What should midwives do in society to help heal birth?

A- What I concentrate on is one birth at a time, with excellence in my practice. One woman tells another, and soon a hundred people have heard the birth story. Each birth creates a ripple effect in the community- it’s amazing the effect that a normal birth has on people.

Q- What roles should midwives have- aside from attending birth- in the community?

A- Classically, midwives have been the wise women who looked out for their communities: they were the women to whom you would go to get help with burying your grandparents; the women who would come with hot meals for the family when the husbands have been ill; they were mature women who never gossiped or betrayed confidences. They furthered wise action and harmony in their communities, and in turn, their communities took care of and honored
the midwives. A midwife’s role should be to promote harmony.

Q- How would a woman go about becoming a midwife?

A- The way I did it twenty years ago was best for me. For four years I immersed myself in reading, eating and breathing birth. We formed different
midwifery study groups, and I began teaching prenatal classes. I did a lot of hospital labor support, and was helped by friends who were doctors and nurse-midwives. I learned a lot from them. I also learned a lot about what NOT to do at a birth… Some of these births were such gruesome rapes I shudder to think of them now. I know there are obstetricians who hate women and are just plain evil in their disregard. I really wanted to keep women away from medicine as much as I could- so I learned how do things like injections and suturing myself. Also, a midwife needs to know many things to be good at her job. She should learn all she can about all aspects of life- she needs to know about religion, government, history, economics, auto mechanics,
linguistics, geography, psychology, matters of the law, physiology, crisis management- she will have to have a wide repertoire of knowledge regarding all aspects of women’s lives.

Q- Could you briefly describe your legal battles?

A- In 1985 my partner and I attended a homebirth in Vancouver where a baby died. We were charged with criminal negligence causing death to the baby, criminal negligence causing bodily harm to the mother, and four counts of practicing medicine without a license. What ensued was a six-year odyssey of appearing before the courts in British Columbia and Ontario- ultimately culminating in an appearance before the Supreme Court of Canada. We were finally acquitted of all charges in 1991. At that time I returned to my midwifery practice (I wasn’t practising at all between 1985-91). In 1994 I had a baby in my practice who died at three days old; and there was a seven day Coroner’s Inquest into his death- which resulted in a finding of “accidental death”. There was a lot of negative publicity and again, once it blew over, I returned to my practice.

Q- What positive result came from your Supreme Court case?

A- Our goal was for it to be the last time midwives faced the criminal justice system in Canada, and for our trial to be the end of all midwifery trials in
Canada. There has not been a criminal arrest of a midwife since.

Q- What is the climate for you inside hospitals when you need to take women in?

A- It varies- sometimes extremely hostile, sometimes extremely cooperative- it seems to depend on the mood of the hospital staff. I’ve learned not to take it personally.

Q- Do doctors really believe they do right by women by interfering with childbirth?

A- I think they’re resigned to birth as it appears to them inside the confines of a hospital. They get resigned to what they see every day, and believe that what they see is how birth is supposed to be. I really feel that doctors don’t have a clue about what to do or how to help birthing women- then they blame women for “needing” interventions. They blame the women for the terrible statistics. They’ve been taught how to do things- and have never questioned the wisdom of what they’ve been taught.

Q- Why do midwives in hospitals remain silent regarding alarming intervention rates?

A- I think they’re resigned to playing politics.

Q- Do some women- such as non-English speaking or minority- suffer more in hospital births than others?

A- I think that in Canadian hospitals some women are used as teaching patients more than others, so interns can learn procedures. These women often have no idea what’s going on, either to them or around them. They also have an unrealistic idea that modern technology is always better than the simpler, more natural ways in their own countries. I think it would make a difference to these women if there were labor support people of their own language or descent in hospitals to help them. Young and uneducated women are taken advantage of too. Two Burnaby midwives were running a program for teaching teenage mothers about nutrition in pregnancy; they soon got a huge number of young women coming to them for counseling. They would channel these young mothers for their regular prenatal care to doctors who never did episiotomies- that is, to gentle women doctors. Soon, other doctors could feel the pinch in their practices- and were forced to develop kinder approaches as well. Hit them where it counts to make change- in the wallet.

Q- What are the most important things a pregnant woman can do to ensure the health of her baby?

A- Eat a good diet. Muster all the social support she can around her. There have been studies that have shown that these are the only two things really make a difference.

Q- What are the two greatest advantages of homebirth?

A- No one will lose your baby, and so far no one has had a cesarean section at home.

Q- Can you think of any disadvantages?

A- Your midwife has to wash the sheets- there’s no paid cleanup staff.

Q- Do breathing exercises really help in preparation for childbirth?

A- Breathing exercises worked for me personally. I love to have some familiar tools when going into scary or unknown situations- learning how to
breathe was valuable for me going into my own births. Some women don’t care about them, though. Every woman has unique wants and needs, and midwives should listen, and put their own judgments aside. If women say they would like to be taught breathing exercises, then they should be taught. That goes for anything else as well. Midwives need to address women as individuals- they need to address individual needs.

Q- What do you find most rewarding about being a midwife?

A- Feeling like I make a difference- knowing that I make a difference.

Q- If you could tell all the obstetricians in the world one thing, what would it be?

A- That birth needs to be undisturbed.

Q- What would you like written on your gravestone?

A- “Gloria Lemay- MIDWIFE & MOTHER… She spoke up for babies”.
First published in 1999.

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