One Big Way the 'Natural' Birth Community Is Failing Women of Color

pregnant woman
This past Saturday, Texas Birth Networks hosted "natural"-birth icon and pioneer Ina May Gaskin, who gave two keynote speeches on maternal mortality. However, during the Q&A portion, Gaskin was asked about race and birth outcomes -- and her answer has upset many. 


During the Q&A, Gaskin -- who is known for being the founder of the Farm Midwifery Center in Tennessee -- was asked by registered nurse Tasha Portley about the connection between racism and poor birth outcomes. Texas Birth Networks live-streamed the event, so you can watch Gaskin's speech, as well as the interaction in question, which begins around 46 minutes in. 

Gaskin, who has centered herself as an expert voice on this topic, ended up skirting the question altogether, and even insinuated that there isn't solid evidence to suggest that systemic racism does indeed play a role in the disparity of maternal care and outcomes related to women of color.

For some context, the United States has one of the highest (and growing!) maternal mortality rates among high-income countries. In fact, Texas -- the state in which Gaskin spoke -- has the highest rate of maternal mortality in all of the industrialized world. Not only does Texas have the highest rate of maternal mortality in the country, but Black women are impacted at a disproportionate rate, accounting for 11.4 percent of all births, but 28.8 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in the state. 

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So it makes perfect sense that Portley (a Black woman herself) would ask Gaskin a related question, given the topic of her talk. Unfortunately, Gaskin's response is indicative of the very issue about which she was asked. 

In her response, Gaskin begins by conflating poverty and Blackness, essentially noting that poor folks should work harder and eat better by growing their own food. And in her answer, regardless of her intention, she makes some pretty racist assumptions.

Portley then notes that when taking out other factors (nutrition, smoking, and so on), there is still a gap in birth outcomes when it comes to race. Ina ended up responding in part:

We have to live with the fact that we're not going to have really solid evidence that points to some questions that we wish we did, and we have to find ways to deal with that.

Gaskin then brings up something about stress and religion (insinuating that communities don't pray as much), but it's uncertain what that had to do with a question about racism playing a role in Black women's maternal mortality rates.

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Deeply upset with Gaskin's response, Portley, along with Erricka Bailey, CD, and Jasmine Banks, LAC, created a petition calling for the Texas Birth Network and the International Cesarean Awareness Network to trust Black women

The petition, which also addresses supposed statements from Gaskin that we did not hear, demands accountability on Gaskin's part, as well as for others to hold Gaskin accountable. The demands are actual solutions to the questions Portley posed, yet none of these ideas (like creating scholarships of WOC, anti-racism training for providers, etc. ...) were even suggested by Gaskin, who basically brushed off the question by saying that there is no evidence to answer her query.

All of these initiatives would be a start at fixing these problems at a larger, systemic scale. In the meantime, Gaskin, who apparently offered an apology for her "insulting and demeaning" answer, should familiarize herself with the WOC who are already doing the hard work of fixing these disparities. Florida-based midwife Jennie Joseph has been providing exceptional care for marginalized pregnant folks for a long time, and is actually doing the work to take racist practices out of the birthing industry. 

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Unfortunately the stats are there and they are real (beyond maternal mortality, Black women have higher rates of early births and having babies with low birth weight), and they are really harming Black women, babies, and families. Shrugging your shoulders as if you wish you could do something or placing the blame on those impacted are not the ways to go about fixing this broken industry. 

The birth industry and those who support it need to trust Black women and start saving them. The lives of Black women and babies are at stake here and it is no time to be complacent. Ina May Gaskin, despite her many years of experience when it comes to birth, can still learn a thing or two. 

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