Advent and Christmas Resources and Link Up

In Defense of Ina May Gaskin

Back in 1989, I was a new mom with a demanding baby and a big secret - I didn't want to have any more children. It's not because I didn't want them; I just could not see myself going through the mistreatment and trauma I had experienced with my first birth again.


Gabe 006

Of course, I did go on to have six more pregnancies and my son has five living siblings. Ina Mae Gaskin's book Spiritual Midwifery, was a big part of my healing process. As I mentioned here, I have respected and admired Ina May Gaskin for many years.
I wrote about her here, here and here.


For those who don't know her, Ina May Gaskin started a hippie commune with her husband, Stephen, in Tennessee back in the 1970s. They were young and idealistic and believed in Jesus, Buddhism and spirituality. Because their followers were also young it was inevitable that some of them would start having babies, and Ina May became the resident midwife. A local doctor befriended her and started to teach her about childbirth and she eventually got more training and became world famous for advocating and practicing natural childbirth.

While I didn't agree necessarily with her religious beliefs, her words and confidence inspired me as a woman and birthing mother.

Last month, Ina May, now 77 years old, was invited to speak at the Texas Birth Network Conference. Here is video of  her second presentation. She shared some quotes from the Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Task Force and Department of State Health Services report.  



At about 46:30 on the video, she invites the audience to ask questions. Her first question is from a registered nurse named Tasha Portley. 

The full transcript of Ina May Gaskin's comments in response to that question is here.

After Ms. Portley's question and answer, a gentleman asked another question, but I do note that the crowd does not seem to be angry, upset, or in any other way conscious of the fact that they supposedly just witnessed a Racial Gaffe Heard around the Midwifery World.

In fact, Mrs. Gaskin's remarks didn't become an issue until Ms. Portley posted this on her Facebook page.


I have listened to both women many times. I have read comments to the posts and the apology posted by Ina May Gaskin on her own Facebook Page.





Once Ms. Portley posted her comments, the internet was pretty swift to condemn Ina May and discredit her as a midwife and speaker. But was it true?  Were Ina May's comments racist and did they deserve such a swift and angry response?

I don't think so.

Below are some problems I had with Ms. Portley's remarks and I have attempted to rebut them with the actual words of Ina May Gaskin from the video.

Tasha Portley's Video:
At 7:45 Tasha starts to talk about her question and answer encounter with Ina May

8:01 - TP says she was the only one after the second session who had a question for IMG.

That's not true. A gentleman asked a question right after she did and that is at the very end of the Ina Mae video.  Again note the demeanor of the crowd. There is no outrage, anger, or indignation at all. Tasha Portley herself doesn't betray that she found the comments to be offensive and racist.

8:13- TP says the question was very direct.

On Microsoft Word, the transcript of her first question was 174 words and about 3 or so run-on sentences.

Tasha Portley said that she asked the following question:
"How in the work that you do, do you see the effects of racism in black women affecting their birth outcomes."

But what she actually asked at the session was this: 
I have been working with some members of the DSHS and locally I’m in Tyler. We're talking about the effects of stress on the infant and the maternal mortality rates and in that we have had the discussion of racism and there is definitely significant evidence that stress related to those mothers being subjected to racism daily can cause poor birth outcomes. So I just wanted to know, and I know in a lot of the slides we talk about rural health and many of those women are the women that I am talking about and with there being three levels of racism, poverty and access to care in these women are vital and so I think that we definitely have to add to solutions is identifying this as an issue and doing the work to make sure that we are impacting those numbers and do you have anything as far as your clientele or just anything to add to that as far as what is going with racism in healthcare as a disparity?



At 8:57 she goes on to paraphrase, mischaracterize and misrepresent  Ina Mae Gaskin's original comments. 

"She said that the numbers are probably not right. You really shouldn't be taking those numbers serious and that we need to pray more. For black women to access health care in the US, all you missing is prayer."


Keeping in mind that Ms. Portley actually asked Ina Mae about HER CLIENTELE, Mrs. Gaskin answered:

You couldn’t look at our numbers (probably at The Farm) and have anything useful to say it. Because the number of African American women have been rather low. Poverty - we had that one covered (laugh from crowd.) we were some of the poorest, and this meant not just the people on The Farm in the 70's and the first half of the 80's, but the Amish certainly qualify with that too.


So she honestly answered that she did not work with many African American women and so she wouldn't have information about those outcomes that would be useful.


When talking about prayer, Ina Mae Gaskin talked about church community and worshipping and praying in community that helped with relieving stress.  I find it absolutely fascinating that Tasha Portley inserted into the discussion how religious the African American community is but then seems to not actually believe that prayer has a place in health care or birth!  

I'm not sure if Tasha Portley is a Christian but since she was so outspoken when she said, "We are one of the most religious groups of people on the planet," it's a little surprising that she doesn't seem to believe in the power or prayer or the benefits of being in a faith community. 

Ina May Gaskin actually prefaced her comments on prayer by talking about Margaret Smith, an African American midwife in Alabama in the 1970s.  This is what she said:

" I mean Mrs. Margaret Smith wrote a book, (Listen to me Good,  and she’s an Alabama midwife that I got to know in the late 70s and it's really remarkable that we got 3500 cases and she documented. But unfortunately the writing that she did was lost in a house fire, but she was absolutely an honest woman and I also talked to the two doctors because they left her on the roles of the Alabama's Registered midwives, because they knew she was so good, and she never had a maternal death. Now that shows it possible. So now what kind of care network, ok well everyone of those midwives that I meet was a religious woman, and probably almost everybody that  she cared for was also religious. Bring up a questions like this you had more people going to church during her time that took some of the load off some of the cares that people had. Prayer, singing together lowers stress. How often do we hear about things like that you know there not as much church going as there used to be and that really cuts across racial groups doesn’t it? It does.


11:19 Tasha says then Mrs. Gaskin mentioned nutrition.

Actually, Mrs. Gaskin talked about that first and again, this was based on her experiences and clientele as a midwife on The Farm in the 70s and 80s. 

Poverty - we had that one covered (laugh from crowd). We were some of the poorest, and this meant not just the people on The Farm in the 70s and first half of the 80s, but the Amish certainly qualify with that too. So poor people ironically can do rather well as long as they don’t, if they eat in a way where they grow what they eat and they’re from sorta farming traditions, they’re going to do well and also if they’re active. Because this has been known for a long time and comes from many different countries that if you do hard work, and this is also born out in rural Alabama and Mississippi and the midwives that I do there who work with people that were very poor and couldn’t afford to pay the midwife and midwife might have been partly feeding them out of her garden and yet they did well and maternal death was rare.


Ina Mae Gaskin didn't mention anyone's weight or blood pressure at all. That is all Tasha Portley's misrepresentation.


10:55 - "So we need to eat kale, and we need to pray."

At no time did Mrs. Gaskin ever mention kale. Actually, she never said anyone needed to pray either. She talked about the benefits of being in a church community, which is an entirely different thing.

11:14 - TP actually never asked about how to prevent the significant health disparities in the black community.  She asked

"and do you have anything as far as your clientele or just anything to add to that as far as what is going with racism in healthcare as a disparity?"

11:58 - Ina Mae gave Tasha her own microphone within just a few seconds of her starting to ask her question. There wasn't a big wait.


12:54 - Why are black women dying?

Researchers don't know.  For her presentation, Ina May used this report from Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Task Force and Department of State Health Services.

Neither does the CDC:

CDC https://www.cdc.gov/media/subtopic/matte/pdf/cdcmattereleaseinfantmortality.pdf


A major challenge in decreasing the rate of preterm birth is the lack of knowledge about the causes and effective strategies for prevention. No screening tests exist to accurately identify women who deliver preterm; and approximately one-half of preterm births occur in women with no known risk factors. Explanations presented for the increase in preterm delivery are many and include the rise in the rate of multiple births, the increased use of procedures to manage labor and delivery such as induction of labor and cesarean delivery earlier in the pregnancy, and changes in maternal lifestyle and health. CDC is engaged in a number of strategies attempting to reduce the rate of preterm births, such as collaborating with outside investigators and state health departments and conducting ongoing research to better understand the social, behavioral, community, genetic, and biologic factors associated with preterm birth and racial disparities, in an effort to identify new opportunities for prevention

Babies are dying - but the truth is researchers don't know why

But Ina May is expected to answer that authoritatively and satisfactorily even though she is not a professional researcher.


16:39 Ina ain't worried about me, or my babies, or yours.


Lack of choice in maternity care is a major burden for women of color. In Los Angeles, for instance, going through MediCal means that you can count on getting an obstetrician instead of a midwife, and you’ll get the bare minimum of services. The obstetricians themselves are reimbursed so little by Medi-Cal that the moms get the worst care available. Informed choice is not part of the program. Each woman is expected to take the one choice that’s on the menu without complaint.

21:32   "my pettiness, and how I am anyway.:

And now I think we're getting to the crux of the issue.

I have written a lot about how women don't listen to other women, so I honestly tried to listen to both sides of this one. I even listened to this program that again presented only one side of this situation. 

Blog talk Radio

What seems to be clear from the articles and comments I read, as well as the Blog Talk Radio program is that the people ready to chastise and condemn Ina May Gaskin didn't actually listen to her words in context with the way the question was posed!

I get that Tasha Portley is very passionate about caring for African American women and their babies. I give her a lot of credit for the hard work that she has been doing and that she continues to do.

But to deliberately slander and commit defamation of another midwife's character is simply unacceptable. In her petition demand, Tasha Portley makes the following demands that could be construed as harmful to IMG's reputation and livelihood: 


  1. Immediately acknowledge how harmful Ina May Gaskin is to the birth community. Publicly denounce Ina May Gaskin and those who support her racist ideology.
  2. Refuse to attend/participate in events that feature Ina May Gaskin. Gaskin is being paid to teach a narrative that is violent to Black women and people of color.
  3. Apply pressure to organizations who continue to support Ina May Gaskin and those who support her racist ideology.


Ms. Portley admits that she can be petty.  However, this might even be illegal. Sadly, if legal action is taken, it would be a waste of time, money, resource and energy for both sides and still not benefit birthing women and babies. 




The Texas Birth network quickly fell to pressure, although clearly, some were very happy to meet and talk to Ina May at the conference.





It's also disheartening to see that many just accepted Tasha Portley's view of things without question and without listening to the comments for themselves carefully. This article in particularly deserves to be singled out. 


“Drug overdoses, cause number three—that’s a biggie—and I presume these are illegal drugs. Not prescription drugs, but those are also going to be a problem,” said Gaskin, who then offered Black women simplistic solutions like praying and growing food to reverse mortality rates. The comments have sparked criticism from Black birth workers on social media, including a petition to boycott events that feature Gaskin.




In that quote above, the article failed to mention that Ina May was quoting directly from the Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Taskforce paper - so if they had a problem with it, the problem is with the task force, not Ina May Gaskin. 


I think this quote in particular on Ina May's facebook page summed up the problem with the entire episode. 





"Read what has been written about what she said."  

Don't check it out for yourself, don't give anyone the benefit of a doubt. And why should you? The other articles written about this certainly didn't.  Neither did ICAN,  Blogtalk Radio  or Texas Birth Network.  But we can sure protest and petition. 



This incident taught me two things:
1.   If asked to opine on any question regarding race - decline to answer. Because the chances are that anything said about that, even with the best of intentions, runs the risk of being "offensive" to someone. And that's a shame because it really is only when women share information that we can improve birth outcomes and experience for all of us. 

2.  Today it seems that no one tries to see it from the other side. Considerations aren't made for someone's age, or life experiences. We're all about hate and division in this country. The bandwagon is so appealing when it's leaving someone else out. Women are good at that. Especially young women  - oh look, another division!!  

Unfortunately, this time an informative birth advocate, Ina May, got caught in the crossfire. And because of that, some mother who really needs the information Ina May has published and shared over the last 40 years will discount it,  because someone, somewhere, sometime, told her Ina May Gaskin was a racist. And unfortunately, that mother will be the one to lose. 



*******************
The Farm puts up a defense





#inamaygaskin
#inaaintshit
#trustblackwomen








Comments