October 4, 2011
Guest column: Safe-childbirth advocate honored
Published: Monday, October 3, 2011 at 1:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, September 30, 2011 at 3:42 p.m.
In 2009, American midwife Ina May Gaskin visited Sarasota. She spoke to the physicians at Sarasota Memorial Hospital, displayed her Safe Motherhood Quilt Project at the Selby Public Library, and sat on a panel of experts at the conference on Maternal Healthcare in the 21st Century. She shed some light in our community on the evolution of American maternity care, our current maternal mortality crisis, and the model of care and accountability we must embrace to change it.
These are the kinds of visits Ina May makes on an almost weekly basis, in between delivering babies at The Farm, the “intentional community” in Tennessee she and husband Stephen Gaskin developed in 1970. One book, one airplane flight, one community at a time, she uses her 40-plus years of midwifery experience and research to educate and call to action those of us who are compelled by the fact that, while the United States spends more money on maternity care than any other nation, we remain ranked 50th in maternal mortality and 41st in infant mortality, according to the World Health Organization.
Recently, Ina May received the highest honor of her career thus far: The Right Livelihood Award (rightlivelihood.org), commonly referred to as the “Alternative Nobel.” The award, established in 1980, honors “those offering practical and exemplary answers to the most urgent challenges facing us today.” Among 2011′s four Laureates, Ina May was chosen “for her whole-life’s work teaching and advocating safe, woman-centered childbirth methods that best promote the physical and mental health of mother and child.”
The Gaskinses will travel to Stockholm in December to accept the honor, which will be presented by Sweden’s Parliament.
This will be the second time they have done this as husband and wife; in 1980, Stephen became the first Right Livelihood Award Laureate for his establishment of PLENTY International. This is the first time a husband and wife have each been laureates of the award, causing the Right Livelihood Foundation to liken the couple to Marie and Pierre Curie.
Today, Ina May focuses her efforts heavily on The Safe Motherhood Quilt Project (rememberthemothers.org), in which each quilt square honors a woman who has died in childbirth in the United States since 1982. The Project aims at summoning the national will necessary to lower the rising maternal death rate by creating a consistent, mandatory system for reporting, classifying and counting maternal deaths, and reviewing and analyzing their causes.
She is also engaged in a national information campaign, aimed at women and medical professionals, about the potential side effects of using Cytotec, or misoprostol, to induce labor. She continues to teach and speak to physicians and midwives worldwide, and has traveled to Argentina, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Costa Rica, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Germany, Switzerland, Israel, Italy, Austria, France, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Russia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Spain, Australia, New Zealand and Japan to do so.
When I was newly pregnant for the first time in 2004, the first book I read was Ina May’s “Spiritual Midwifery.” Like so many other new mothers, I relied on the birth stories and wisdom so frequently that its pages were dog-eared and tattered by my due date. Since that bestseller, she has penned: “Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth,” “Ina May’s Guide to Breastfeeding” and “Birth Matters: A Midwife’s Manifesta,” published just this summer. I encourage people to read this most recent work, describing the evolution of our maternity care system, and the path we must take to improve it, not only for the highest good of our mothers and babies, but for nations worldwide that strive to replicate our model of care.
“A society that places a low value on its mothers and the process of birth will suffer an array of negative repercussions for doing so,” says Ina May Gaskin. “Good beginnings make a positive difference in the world, so it is worth our while to provide the best possible care for mothers and babies throughout this extraordinarily influential part of life.”
We as a nation should celebrate Ina May Gaskin, the U.S. 2011 Right Livelihood Award Laureate, with collective pride and gratitude. Her tireless dedication to her calling has rippled throughout the world, and it is up to us to carry her message. It is a privilege to work with Ina May, and the highest honor to call her my friend.
Laura Gilkey is the marketing director for Ina May Gaskin’s Safe Motherhood Quilt Project. She serves on the volunteer executive board of directors for the Healthy Start Coalition of Sarasota County and is vice president of Florida Friends of Midwives.