|Countercultural Childbirth: Homebirth and Midwifery in the Kootenay Region of British Columbia, 1970-1990|
|Midwifery has, in late twentieth-century Canada, re-emerged as a legitimate, publicly funded profession providing primary maternity care to a range of low-risk clients. Yet this is fairly recent history, for until January 1998 midwifery was an ‘alegal’ profession in BC where, despite support from birthing women, practitioners offered services underground and charged clients directly, often receiving little payment. While the shift from alegal to legal was played out in the realm of health policy and professional politics, a full understanding of the changes in birthing practices lies outside the medical and professional realm, within a grassroots movement of alternative thinkers who chose to give birth in a non-medical environment. Homebirth and midwifery developed in geographical pockets around the province where ‘counter-culture’ thrived and there was often a divide between rural practice in remote regions and political developments in the urban areas of the province. Focussing on the Kootenay area, a vibrant site for back-to-the-land living, this paper explores a rural region of the western province where homebirth and midwifery were significant social forces in the late 1970s and 1980s.
In the more fluid norms of counter-culture communities, standard birthing practices were called into question alongside accepted morals, family structures, technologies and economic relations. Potential parents allied with a small group of sympathetic health practitioners to create a sustained critique of the standard hospital birthing procedures of the 1950s and 1960s which they regarded as pathologizing and medicalizing the natural process of birth. Often drawing inspiration from aboriginal rituals and practices, these people sought to redefine birth, not as a medical event, but as a spiritual experience that should take place within the context of home, family and community. When Claire W. opted for a homebirth in the tiny settlement of Argenta in the early 1980s, she had already attended a birth in a teepee at Kingcome Inlet when she was working as a tree-planter. With other women in her small community, she educated herself while pregnant, drawing on literature from the Women’s Movement and early feminist health texts such as Our Bodies/Our Selves (Boston Women’s Health Collective) and Spiritual Midwifery (Ina Mae Gaskin).
Coming from within these communities, certain women were deemed ‘midwives’, not by a professional body, but by the nature of their practice and their personal status. Lily B. never received formal midwifery training, but simply began practising after her son was born, studying books and bringing to her new work an understanding of the medical profession gained while educating hospital staff about dealing with rape victims. Sarah M. had trained as an R.N. before she began assisting with homebirths, but her passion for the practice of midwifery was rooted in her own birthing experiences and a belief that, “women had to take control.” These midwives operated on the margins of medicine, practising for the most part well beyond the confines of sometimes antagonistic hospital boards and staff, but intersecting with medicine through formal or informal education, medical practice, and connections with sympathetic doctors and nurses.