Midwifery care is not only for pregnant people. Midwives perform basic health checks for people of all ages and sexes, offer screening for sexually transmitted diseases, order labwork, and provide our children with thorough, accurate, and compassionate sexual education. Throughout history and across cultures, midwives have held many different roles in societies. We have cared for people through the generations- from birth to death. We have helped to support everybody, regardless of age, sex, and gender, to be healthy and connected to themselves.
For centuries, humans held control over our own healthcare. We used food and herbs and different traditions to help keep us healthy and to nurture future generations. Midwives were, in most cultures, some of the most appreciated and respected for our practical and spiritual knowledge of health and wellbeing. As community members, our roles were to empower others with the knowledge of what they needed to be healthy and well, so that they in turn would become their own best caretakers.
Today, in American society, we have lost the collective ability to care for ourselves. We are trained to look outwards for health: to doctors, to pharmaceutical medications, and to ever-changing technologies aimed to make us healthier and happier. Low-income and communities of color are the hardest hit with limited or no access to fresh fruits and vegetables, increased exposure to environmental toxins, and a lack of preventative healthcare options. As a culture, we no longer revere midwives as bedrocks of community healthcare, and we have lost the trust in our own bodies that we once had. This decline in respect for midwives and autonomy over our own healthcare is entirely intertwined.
In the United States in the early 1900’s, the newly formed American Medical Association began gaining power. They conducted a smear campaign against midwives, painting us as dirty, untrained, and inferior, and introduced the culture of looking to (male) doctors and hospitals for care. Not only did they dishonor midwives: they sowed the seeds of fear and mistrust in our own bodies. A new culture of medicine was born. One in which we thought that we needed doctors to tell us when we were healthy or unwell. Where we thought that we needed obstetricians to keep us and our babies safe during childbirth. Where we needed machines, professionals in white coats, and medications to keep us alive.
Western medicine has created this absurd idea that the female body would not be able to give birth without doctors to keep them safe. If that were true, how could we have possibly survived as a species? There have absolutely been some important advancements in birth that the Western medical system has offered. Antibiotics have protected babies and birthing people from infections, anti-hemorrhagic medications have saved countless lives, and cesarean sections have allowed many babies to live when they would not have been able to be born vaginally.
Unfortunately, we often take the benefits of Western medicine too far. We have gotten to the point in our society where we have overused antibiotics for humans and animals resulting in the creation of super-bacteria which are resistant to all of the medications we have. In the US, we perform major surgeries for the births of 32% of our babies, where only about 10% are considered necessary by the World Health Organization. Almost 10% of our children between ages 6-17 are on some type of psychiatric medication, with proportions increasing for low-income children of color.
When hospitals and doctors took the place of community healthcare and midwives, we forgot how to care for ourselves. We began to fear birth, even though our ancestors had done it successfully for thousands and thousands of years. We began to control and regulate the female body, to conceal sexual knowledge from our children, and to insist that everything be treated with pharmaceutical medications.
We lost autonomy over our own healthcare, because the power of our autonomy was more that our patriarchal society could withstand.
Imagine we lived in a world where children grew up knowing about their bodies and how they work, where they learned about the local plants that could help keep them healthy, and where they had healthcare providers who had known and cared for them since before they were born. Imagine we lived in a world where men took it upon themselves to teach young boys about consent and intimacy, and where all children had community members they could talk to about their changing bodies and sexualities. Imagine women and other people with uteruses knew how to strengthen or restrict their own fertility. That when they decided to have a baby, they could be supported and accompanied by someone in their own community who knew best how to care for them because of their longstanding and trusting relationship. Imagine that when people died, they could be surrounded by the friends and family they were closest to, cared for by loved ones with a sense of connection and whole-ness.
This reality is not so far-fetched. In today’s modern world, where the internet connects us globally like never before, we have access to unbelievable quantities of the information we need to take back our healthcare. Online health forums, medical blogs, and high-quality research is accessible to anyone with curiosity and basic technological skills. The internet is packed with online parenting groups and discussion boards for people considering unassisted homebirths or attempting to heal cancer naturally. We need to learn the critical skills to sort through various qualities of information and determine what actually applies to us and our communities. The knowledge is here: both through written knowledge and ancestral wisdom, ready and ripe for us to remember.
In this moment in US history when our collective access to healthcare is being threatened to an even greater extent than it already has, we need to re-learn how to keep ourselves and each other well. We must take our healthcare back into our own hands. I am not advocating to disregard Western medicine and the tools and technology we already have. I am, however, arguing for a change in our collective paradigm of healthcare. We need to re-create a culture where we are connected to our bodies, our babies, the earth, and our humanity. We need midwives to again become central parts of our communities’ healthcare systems, and to teach us how to care for ourselves and each other. No doctor can save us. Let’s support each other to save ourselves.
Do you have ideas on how to create and support community-based healthcare that is accessible to everyone? Please comment below!