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Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin's Legacy Among Doulas in L.A.

01/24/2013 07:02 pm ET | Updated Mar 26, 2013

Winner of the 2012 Audience Award in the Los Angeles Film Festival, Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin and The Farm Midwives recounts the history of the natural birth movement in the United States. It is the story of a revolution, initiated in the least likely place imaginable.

The women behind the movement were hippies, mothers, artists, and members of a caravan of school buses making its way across the country to establish an intentional community in the heart of rural Tennessee. Led by Stephen Gaskin, a spiritual teacher and former academic, The Farm community grew from a group of inspired young activists to a sprawling village. And from the beginning, from the nests and beds within their buses in fact, natural birth was at the heart of their cause. The "revolution" began in these beds and buses, on country roads, in the hands of accidental midwives and doulas. It began with a contraction, a sigh, a groan, a baby's blessed cry of life...

Puffy and blue, the baby's face peeks out from between his mother's legs. We're not sure he's going to make it. The head is out now, but labor has stalled, and it is becoming increasingly apparent that his shoulders aren't getting any smaller. We're just cresting crisis mode now, sweating and panting with the mother to deliver her more-than-10 pound baby.

Her husband labors in his own way at her side -- kissing, fretting, encouraging, checking the baby. His long, unruly beard hangs down onto a bare chest, mirroring his wife's own taut and bare skin, her swollen breasts and belly.

Just before panic reaches its climax, a thought dawns on the birth workers. All energies suddenly spring alive to help shift the woman to all fours. Call it a miracle or just plain anatomy, but within seconds the baby is born. And both rooms -- ours and theirs -- register a collective sigh of gratitude and almost giddy relief.

Their room, captured on film some thirty years ago, witnessed one of the best examples of The Gaskin Maneuver, a powerful technique used by midwives around the world to combat shoulder dystocia. Ina May Gaskin, the maneuver's namesake, was present in that room, alongside several other midwives who pooled their efforts to make the 'miracle' happen. She had learned the technique from a Belizean midwife who had, herself, received training in Guatemala.

Our room, packed with folding chairs and embroidered pillows, witnessed the film that brought Ina May's story to the big screen. The above birthing scene is just one of many poignant vignettes included in Birth Story, through which the untold history of the natural birth movement comes alive.

If you aren't tapped into birth culture, you might not know that Los Angeles is home to a vibrant natural birth community, rife with doulas, midwives, progressive doctors, prenatal yoga instructors and more. As a pregnant woman in this city, you can find free childbirth education classes and doula services through the LA Doula Project; you can find practitioners of hypnobirthing, water birthing, placenta encapsulation, prenatal acupuncture and holistic pediatrics. With a bit of research and planning, you can have a birth experience tailor-made to your preferences and needs.

Thus it came as no surprise when I heard that a group of radical doula activists from the Shodhini Institute would be hosting the screening of Birth Story, the perfect way to spend a sunny Sunday in L.A. The room filled with doulas, nurses, expectant mothers and their eager partners, packed side by side in chairs and spilling onto yoga mats and cushions spread out against the walls. Several women from Shodhini introduced the film and fielded questions afterwards.

Named after the Sanskrit word for "female researcher," The Shodhini Institute is an activist organization with reproductive health at the core of its mission statement. Through their 16-hour trainings, the Institute teaches women the skills necessary to perform self-exams using a speculum, flashlight and mirror. This is the legacy of the Farm midwives: women's health, in women's hands. And it lives on in Los Angeles, as it does around the globe.

Despite the strength of the natural birth community, the film reminds us of the challenges that remains. Ina May emphasizes that, with more than 30% of US births carried out by Cesarean, we are in grave danger of losing the wisdom accumulated over centuries by midwives and doulas. The practice of midwifery is still illegal in ten states, though the maternal mortality rate continues to rise and shows no signs of subsiding. Clearly we are no better off for all the invasive procedures and routine surgeries -- though, granted, there is a time and place for everything.

The lesson illustrated throughout the film is simple: Birth is natural. Sticky, sweaty and sometimes bloody? You bet. A big problem requiring pre-emptive abdominal surgery? Not a chance.

In the final scene of the film, we join Ina May in witnessing a mother deliver her own baby. The midwives stand to the side, their gloves and instruments untouched and, in this case, unnecessary. From the warmth of a birthing tub, the woman breaths and groans and pants her way through labor, while husband and daughter look on in anxious anticipation. The scene is peaceful, interrupted by only a few soft words of encouragement from the midwives and the mother's own gentle encouragement to her baby. As the newborn makes his final descent into the water, quickly scooped up by mama and brought to her breast, both rooms -- ours and theirs -- fill with laughter and tears and the awe that birth never ceases to inspire.