Mormon Midwives and the Business of Being Born

By March 24, 2013

I am about six months pregnant right now, which means that my backaches and I am inundated with a list of things that I am supposed to eat or not eat and do or not do.  According to Mayo Clinic, I should avoid certain types of fish including swordfish, shark, king mackerel, and tilefish but not shrimp, crab, canned tuna, salmon, Pollock, catfish, cod, or tilapia.  The fish in the latter group, however, should only be eaten in moderation.  I shouldn?t take a very hot bath or get into the hot tub.  It?s okay to eat hard cheeses like cheddar, feta, and provolone but not soft cheeses like brie, goat?s cheese, and gorgonzola.  Lunchmeat is out, as is sushi.  Tylenol, Metamucil, and Neosporin are okay if you get sick but Benadryl isn?t okay until after the first trimester and most other drugs are out until the baby is weaned.

Being pregnant has made me even more cognizant of the materials and histories that are produced about pregnancy.  Recently, there have been several documentaries made advocating for certain visions of women and reproductive health.  One of the earliest and perhaps most controversial is Ricki Lake?s The Business of Being Born (Yes, it?s the same Ricki Lake you used to watch when you were home sick from school)Produced in 2008, the documentary is a product of Lake?s disappointment with her first birth and advocates for natural birth as something that women should be encouraged to try.  Watching the video was a disturbing experience.  All I could think as I watched a woman moaning in pain and squatting in a corner was while giving birth, ?Get her an epidural!  She?s in pain.?  People have criticized the film for being over-the-top and distorting medical statistics to scare women about hospital birth.  At one point, one of the film?s interviewees compares women who have Caesarean sections to animals and suggests that since animals often reject babies born by C-section, women who have C-sections may also have a hard time bonding with their children.

The fact that I am pregnant and my newfound interest in women?s reproductive issues has led me to explore the history of midwives and obstetrics within Mormonism.  I first encountered the history of Mormon midwives in books like Claudia Bushman?s Mormon Sisters and in the edited diaries of Patty Bartlett Sessions.  What struck me in those initial encounters with midwifery is the community that it created for the women involved.  In her diaries from Laie, Julina Lambson Smith wrote about her daily experiences.  Interspersed with accounts of endless sewing, cooking, and ironing are brief mentions of her trips to deliver the babies of other women.  In 1886, she delivered the baby of Lily Barrell.  After laboring for five hours, Lily had a daughter at 1:48 a.m.  Julina didn?t get to bed till half past three and napped for much of the following the day.  A few days later, at 1 p.m., she was called to help Sister Noall.  She was not able to leave her till five the next morning but was able to deliver her of a healthy baby girl.  What emerges from Julina?s diaries is a sense of pride in her work.  In an autobiography she wrote for the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers, Julina wrote that ?it was always a joy for me to place a tiny one for the first time in its mother?s arms, for I felt again the thrills that I felt on looking in to my own babies? faces.?  Readers also get a sense of the closeness that these women felt towards each other.  Not only did they visit each other and spend hours chatting about the gossip that was circulating in the small Mormon community of Laie, they cooked together, helped sew each other?s clothing, and delivered each other?s babies.

What I missed when reading Julina?s diary and the first time that I learned about Mormon midwives, however, was the ways in which midwifery was seen as a holy calling and was specifically blessed by the priesthood.  In the nineteenth century, the Relief Society of each Mormon ward nominated two women to serve as wards.  These women were often set apart for their callings.  In 1883, The Woman?s Exponent reported that Willard Richards had felt in Nauvoo that ?healing was a power? and that everyone who ?officiated among the sick? should have ?all the blessings that could be conferred upon them by those holding the keys of the priesthood of God upon the earth.?  As a result, he had laid his hands upon the heads of a number of women and called them to act in that capacity.  He referred to them as ?handmaids of the Lord.?  Richards? blessing made the work of bearing children a religious one.  It was one in which women were called to work as servants of the Lord.  It was only one sanctioned by the Priesthood and recognized by it.

In some ways, the language that the Woman?s Exponent uses to describe birth is similar to that found in documentaries like Ricki Lake?s.  Both see birth as a holy experience in which women have the opportunity to do something that is empowering and divine.  What is different is their relationship to the medical profession.  Lake sees herself as challenging a medical establishment that no longer (and perhaps never did) put the interests of women at the forefront of its mission.  She sees herself as starting a movement to take back the process of giving birth and re-establishing it as something that women are in control of.  There were tensions in nineteenth-century America about role that women and midwives would play in the business of giving birth.  In many cases, doctors saw themselves as supplanting uneducated and ill-informed midwives.  For the most part, the rise of the obstetrician was the decline of the midwife.

This wasn?t true in nineteenth-century Utah.  Many of the women who became ward midwives had been trained in schools of midwifery in Scotland and Germany.  Others took classes from doctors like Ellis Shipp and Romania Pratt.  Although midwifery would eventually decline in Utah as well, Mormon women did not see obstetrics and midwifery as opposed rather they saw them as being part of the same divine knowledge.

As I near the end of my second trimester of pregnancy, I wish that this partnership were more evident in women?s health.  Although the hospital at the University of Michigan tries to be accepting of alternative birth practices, I still feel torn between different visions of medical care.  Watching Ricki Lake?s documentary or reading contemporary literature on why midwives are important, I felt as though women who didn?t choose to have an all-natural birth were being judged.  Their births were somehow not as valiant or ?real? as the births of women who chose to forgo pain medication.  On the other hand, many doctors are skeptical of midwives and have chosen to ban doulas (women who are paid to be a woman?s advocate during labor in case she is in too much pain to make her own decisions) from their hospitals.  As a result, as a pregnant woman, I feel torn about the choices I make during my pregnancies.  At times, it seems as though I am screwed if I do and screwed if I don?t.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Fantastic historical background and poignant contemporary relevance, Amanda; thanks for this. Though I clearly can’t speak from the experience as one giving birth, I can say that, as a husband, I was blown away by the difference in approach in Provo, where doctors called the shots and as soon as a woman is admitted they are given an epidural, and in Cambridge, UK, where midwives are mostly in charge and the epidural is a last resort. It was definitely a cultural shock for us, but one that ended up helping us fall in love with the British system.

    Comment by Ben P — March 25, 2013 @ 8:06 am

  2. Congratulations on your baby. I hope that the delivery goes well.

    About using midwives. They can be good if you choose a Certified Nurse Midwife and give birth in a hospital. Certified nurse midwives have a masters degree and they have been trained to recognize complications. However, there are women who call themselves Certified Professional Midwives, lay midwives or direct entry midwives who have no formal training. They just like to deliver babies and are self-taught or work through an apprenticeship. They always deliver at home or at birth centers. They are notorious for taking risks and distorting studies to try to assure mothers that homebirth is safe. If you have a complication at home, your baby could be dead or brain damaged by the time you get to the hospital. These midwifes will often tell mothers, “Some babies weren’t meant to live,” or “Babies die in hospitals too.”

    If you are contemplating going with a homebirth or a birth center midwife, I recommend ready reading before making a decision. It never hurts to to hear both sides of the story so your decision can be informed.

    Remember, birth isn’t a competition. I felt a wonderful spirit in the operating room for the birth of each of my four children. Weather you choose to go natural, get an epidural or have a C-section birth is a spiritual thing.

    I wish you well!

    Comment by rk — March 25, 2013 @ 9:19 am

  3. I agree with your assessment. I hear that the same longing for guidance, community and the hope for a safe spiritual birth that comes from so many women who walk through our doors too. Don’t give up your quest – you will love where it leads you!
    On a side note, you might enjoy a book I just barely published: Zion’s Hope: Pioneer Midwives and Women Doctor’s of Utah. You will find strength…

    Comment by Honey Newton CNM — March 25, 2013 @ 9:30 am

  4. This is very interesting. I remember a conversation I had last summer in Provo (with, I think, Ben P’s wife) about birthing practices in the US vs the UK. I remember it being very enlightening and I also remember deciding I should have my (very hypothetical) kids in Europe, because of the medicalization of births, but also because the Netherlands grants you sixteen weeks of paid maternity leave and that sounds pretty great.

    On a more scholarly note, one of the things I’m looking at in my dissertation is embodiment and/or gendered bodily norms. Giving birth (especially with the whole priesthood/motherhood discussion) is definitely in there. So thanks for the short history of midwives etc as well.

    Comment by Saskia — March 25, 2013 @ 9:43 am

  5. I broke my own rule and read the comments. A Certified professional midwife does not mean “she has no training” Ina May Gaskin is a CPM, LM and she trains obstetricians in some techniques. There are some FANTASTIC midwives who are not CNMs working tirelessly for women. Interview, talk to other moms, find out their history there are some CPM’s that I have trusted my life with and some OB’s and CNMs that I don’t want clipping my nails.

    Comment by Janie — March 25, 2013 @ 10:01 am

  6. Interesting overview, Amanda- thanks! The fact that midwives were seen as acting in a priesthood (or priesthood-sanctioned) calling makes me wonder about the current trend of some Mormon feminists in insisting on equivalency between fatherhood and motherhood. It seems to dismiss birth entirely, which seems to contradict the beliefs (and arguably, the only priesthood role) of early Mormon women regarding childbirth.

    Comment by Rachael — March 25, 2013 @ 10:23 am

  7. I recently posted one week’s notes (out of a 16-week course) taken by a woman who was attending a course for Mormon midwives in Arizona, in 1893. Although I have not cited the source there, I would be happy to discuss it with anyone who is actively working on related research. The notes from that course reflect very well the link between physical care and holy calling that Amanda refers to.

    And congratulations, Amanda!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 25, 2013 @ 10:28 am

  8. Rachael makes a very good point there.

    Ardis, that sounds fascinating.

    Comment by Saskia — March 25, 2013 @ 10:45 am

  9. #5 I said that they have “No formal training” They do not have a college degree. They don’t even need a high school diploma to call themselves a midwife. They can go around with another CPM and then call themselves a midwife.

    By the way, there are a few interesting facts about Ina May Gaskin (featured in the Business of Being Born) that you might not be aware of:

    She operates without a medical licence
    She carries no malpractice insurance, so if she does something wrong, she cannot be sued.
    She let one of her babies die in childbirth
    She has one child with cerebral palsy

    Is this the kind of person you want delivering your child. Childbirth is not about the “experience” for the mother, it is about bring a child safely into the world.

    Comment by rk — March 25, 2013 @ 10:56 am

  10. Amanda;

    First, congratulations and best wishes for you and your new to-be family. 🙂

    Second, thank you for this article. I’ve heard a little bit about the Mormon midwives but I’d really like to learn more and this is a good starting point.

    Third, when it comes to midwives VS. obstetricians, I take the middle path. Medical science is here to bless us. Many women and babies live who might otherwise have had fatal complications. On the other hand, medical science has kind of treated pregnancy as a disease and we can take a different, more gentle approach. We as a society don’t need to hype and freak out about pregnancy the way we do. I’d love to see a show or a movie where birth did not end up a stressful problem or danger. And we flail around so much about how “terribly painful” it is. Bah. Apologies to those who did find it painful but for me, (I did the Bradley Method) it was definitely hard work and utterly exhausting but it was not the horrible ordeal it gets painted as.

    Going back to midwives Vs. obstetricians, I had midwives until I tested positive for gestational diabetes. At that point, provincial law mandated I change over to an obstetrician. (He was OK, but apparently reamed out my midwives for “badly informing me” about the dangers he said I faced because I asked about keeping to my plan for a home birth.) One thing I clearly remember though is going to the hospital for the first of many check-ups and feeling this incredible sense of energy and joy as I walked down the hall. It’s hard to describe but the thought came to me that if I was going there to have my baby right then and there (instead of my wish for a water birth at home) then I was not only fine with that, but excited and looking forward to it. Even a little bit let down because I knew the baby wasn’t due for a few months yet. I didn’t want the baby to come early, of course, but I still felt a little sad that this wasn’t “it.”

    In the end, I had the obstetrician AND the midwives, which was great. I knew them more and was comfortable with them and they came to my house for the first few Well-Baby checks. I just wish Ontario had Birthing Centres where you could have the best of both worlds.

    Comment by Proud Daughter of Eve — March 25, 2013 @ 11:00 am

  11. I’ve got two thoughts for you:


    (2) One thing to keep in mind is that no matter what you decide, the odds are overwhelming that, one year from now, that choice will make no difference whatsoever to anyone. It’s good to keep that in mind.

    Comment by Julie M. Smith — March 25, 2013 @ 11:02 am

  12. Amanda, This is a great post on such a timely topic. For me what stands out about Mormons and Utah is the high rate of educated midwives in the nineteenth century. I wonder what you think of the somewhat common assessment of Brigham Young’s pivotal role in the encouragement of women seeking out a midwivery education (is that how it would be phrased? Seems awakward) ?

    Comment by Natalie R — March 25, 2013 @ 8:52 pm

  13. It needs to be said that the skeptical OB is neither rational nor truthful the majority of the time. She has been rejected by her own peers and is not a credible source. If you have reservations about birthing out of the hospital or going with a midwife, I would find a better source than her to research.

    Comment by Janie — March 26, 2013 @ 8:34 am

  14. Pretty cool that midwife was once a Church office.

    Comment by Ryan T — March 26, 2013 @ 10:29 am

  15. Thanks everyone for your comments! I appreciate all of the links and information that people have provided. I don’t know enough about the medial field to comment on some of the specific information that people have provided about midwives and nurses, but I think that in general part of the problem is that many women no longer have a community around them to provide them with information and to filter some of the rubbish about pregnancy. Personally, I’ve found that there is TONS of information out there. How much of it is true is harder to determine. In the end, I decided to go with an obstetrician rather than a midwife because my mother had difficult births with each of her pregnancies. She lost her first baby. Because of my mother’s history, the hospital feels safer. I do wonder sometimes if I missing out on something by not choosing a midwife or a doula.

    Natalie, Brigham Young definitely seems to have supported the education of women as midwives but there was also a lot of female-led education. A lot of women gained their expertise about birth from women like Ellis Shipps and Romania Pratt. Even though Brigham may have jumpstarted it, it appears to have become a female-led enterprise very quickly (even if it was always sanctioned through the priesthood and organized under it).

    Ryan, I agree. I wonder when that particular practice stopped.

    Comment by Amanda — March 26, 2013 @ 12:22 pm

  16. Nurses physicians and midwives were set apart by the FP into the 20th century and local RS’s created birthing centers that operated for several decades after that. I’m not sure how these fit into the ecclesiology of the church though.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 26, 2013 @ 12:32 pm

  17. While not specifically pertaining to obstetrics, this bit I’ve just run across in the Relief Society records of a northern Utah ward in 1896 seems relevant:

    “Bishop Ward felt gratful to the Sisters in behalf of the sick and neady during the past winter sugested that a corom of sisters be set apart to adminster amongst the sick Br James Storey instructed them in there dutys”

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 26, 2013 @ 2:31 pm

  18. “I do wonder sometimes if I’m missing out on something by not choosing a midwife or a doula.”

    I tried two times in two different states to use midwives and seriously disliked both practices. The women were brusque, couldn’t or wouldn’t explain things adequately or appropriately, and both practices missed a dangerous medical complication. This was back in the early days of the internet, and finally my husband went to a medical library and figured out what was going on and I switched to an obstetrical practice and they were able to provide better care.

    Anyway, it’s a much longer story than I can tell here, but since I probably owe the lives of three of my children to modern medical care, I’m all for well-educated and compassionate obstetricians and delivery at clean, well-funded hospitals. (Plenty of those in the Upper Midwest!)

    Not that there isn’t a place for good, well-trained midwives. My third-great grandmother was a midwife.

    In 1910, she was chosen by the Relief Society of the … Ward to go to Salt Lake City and take the course in General Nursing and Obstetrics, being offered by the Church Relief Society for the benefit of the members everywhere, so that in each settlement someone with training and understanding would be available …

    …she never lost a case.

    She attributed this to the blessings of the Lord. She had some unusual and abnormal cases when she was alone and could get no help, but through her faith and the blessings of the Lord, as she always said, they got along without a loss. She was a veritable Angel of Mercy in many homes. Especially was she depended on and appreciated among the Mexican mothers of the town, to whom her skill and jovial personality were such a comfort. Many of them depended upon her implicitly.

    Comment by Amy T — March 26, 2013 @ 3:02 pm

  19. […] Women performed washings, anointings, and blessings on those in labor or confinement. As another historian pointed out, Mormon midwifery was viewed as a sacred calling. By ignoring childbirth in […]

    Pingback by A Couple Knots with Mormon Women and the Priesthood — March 28, 2013 @ 9:50 am

  20. Amanda-

    This was great to read. Good work and thank you for sharing.

    Since hearing Laurine Kingston’s interview on KRCL 90.9, I’ve had an idea in my head- were early FLDS communities a type of ‘preservative’ for turn of the century mainstream Mormon culture? Were some of the 19th century midwifery practices that you talk about kept in practice among the FLDS- who viewed themselves as being pure Mormonism- for a longer period of time than the LDS Church? It seems quite likely that someone has already covered this ground, so if you are aware of anything, please share away. I think that there are a number of topics that could be studied in early FLDS communities that would fit into this idea of them being a type of cultural preservative, but midwifery is the one that really jumps out at me. What do you think?

    Comment by jg — March 29, 2013 @ 9:42 am


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