Birth Story 2010

Following one topic, childbirth, for an entire year has given me an unusual perspective on what is happening on that front, both here in the United States and also globally.

If you ask me, the newly apparent muscle of the holistic birth community was the most important “birth story” of 2010. One sign of this was the passage of the so-called Midwifery Modernization Act in New York, which eliminated a requirement that midwives obtain a written practice agreement from a physician or hospital to practice in New York State.Pregnant Graffiti

Also, as we just discovered from a new report from the Centers for Disease Control, released last week, birth by Cesarean section reached a new high, 32.9 percent of births in 2009, up from 32.3 in 2008. The steadily rising rate — up every year since 1996, when the rate was 20.7 — has been a major story all year.

That CDC report also showed the birth rate for U.S. teen-agers hit its lowest level last year since records began to be kept seventy years ago — 39.1 births per 1,000 teens, down from 41.5 per 1,000 in 2008. The record low held true for all racial and ethnic groups.

A couple of other big birth stories of 2010, sadly, revolved around the fact that too many mothers are still dying in childbirth.

In March, Amnesty International called out the American childbirth establishment on a rising rate of maternal mortality in a report called “Deadly Delivery: The Maternal Health Care Crisis in the USA.” The human-rights advocacy organization pointed out that while the United States spends more on health care than any other country in the world, “maternal mortality ratios have increased from 6.6 deaths per 100,000 live births in 1987 to 13.3 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2006.”

Many other groups joined in that call for changes to improve birth safety in this country.

Meanwhile, in the developing world, the United Nations’ Millennium Goal 5, which aims to bring down rates of maternal mortality by three-quarters in places like sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia, is the subject of much scrutiny, with a major push in some places creating bright spots in what appears to be a generally gloomy picture with just five years to go.

Pregnant Graffiti by Petteri Sulonen / Wikimedia Commons

Channeling the women’s rights movement

Women were thought to be more sensitive and spiritual than men in the mid-19th century, so people weren't completely surprised to discover that spirits nearly always chose women to serve as "mediums" to convey their messages to the world of the living.

The medium was the central figure in the Spiritualist faith. Women didn't choose to be mediums -- the spirits chose them -- and they often found themselves doing things they wouldn't have believed women could or should do.Radical Spirits

Mediums not only channeled messages from the dead in small seances, but they also stood up in front of large groups and lectured. When they did so, they were in a trance. Nevertheless, some of these "trance speakers" became hugely successful on the lecture circuit, the historian Ann Braude writes in her book, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women's Rights in Nineteenth-Century America.

To close the loop on our discussion of the role Spiritualism played in preparing American women for a public role in American life, women had been making inroads in some religions, but had not served a primary role before Spiritualism, Braude writes. And religion went a long way toward setting the tone in 19th century life.

Spiritualism began to take shape in 1848, the very year, and in the very same area, the Finger Lakes region of New York State -- the so-called "Burned Over District" -- that gave birth to the organized women's rights movement.

"Dissident Quakers" were at the center of both of these radical movements, and considerable overlap ensued. Quaker women already enjoyed more freedom and prestige than women in other religions, but women who were or would become Spiritualists were so aggressive in pushing for a central role for women that they put off even some of their fellow feminists, Braude writes.

None of the women who put together the Seneca Falls Convention believed a woman should preside over such an assembly, for example. So James Mott, Lucretia Mott's husband, was pressed into service as president of the meeting that established the women's rights movement.

However, when the group met again in Rochester two weeks later, a faction of the women, most of whom later became Spiritualists -- notably Amy Post, Rhoda DeGarmo and Sarah Fish -- insisted that a woman should preside. Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton "stoutly opposed" the motion as "a most hazardous experiment." They wanted James to head this gathering as well.

The meeting was a contentious one, but in the end, Abigail Bush, a Presbyterian who would become a lifelong Spiritualist, was elected president. The world did not come to an end, and the idea of women as leaders took one step forward.

Thanks to my friend, the historian Rima Lunin Schultz, for putting together a list of books for me about how Americans' ideas about women took shape in the 19th century.

As Women's History Month winds down, you might want to visit Birth Activist's  "Women's History Blog Carnival" about "women who have led the way in birth."