Film Review: Ina May Gaskin and the Farm Midwives

The old ways are the still best, asserts this documentary, especially if it’s a DIY birth with a midwife on hand to help.

Not one to bury the lead, Ina May Gaskin asks her audience in one of her talks, “Is there anyone here who was not born of a woman? No? Then we’re in the same universe.” Using humor and an easygoing manner to promote her cause of humane home-birthing and midwifery, the 73-year-old Gaskin is the focus of Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin and the Farm Midwives.

The doc follows her around her Tennessee home, in and out of the birth centers she’s created, to lecture halls around the globe and—of course—to the most intimate orifices of the birth canal. In shots not for the squeamish, the documentary shows four sequences of live births, perhaps more simultaneously exhilarating and scary than life and death on cinematic battlefields we’ve seen in recent war films. Bullets and bombs are finite, but it seems there are as many ways to get born as there are vaginas.

As presented by documentarians Sara Lamm (Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox) and actor-turned-director Mary Wigmore, Gaskin’s life work is to liberate childbirth from isolating hospital procedures where mother, baby and of course dad are separated out and pregnancy is treated as it were an unnatural state or a disease. Gaskin also updates us that Cesarean sections are now performed in one-third of all U.S. births, and 50% in the even more time-efficient China. Induced labor is also more “convenient.” Talking to the camera (us, and the filmmakers) as well as her audiences, she blames the profit motive of the medical profession. Hers is a different way: All will be relaxed, happier and even safer with a home delivery where family is present, or at a well-prepared, nurturing birthing center.

Most of Birth Story takes place in Summertown, Tennessee, on land which was occupied by the gentle commune known as “The Farm” in the 1970s. While caravanning across the country, with her husband Stephen Gaskin as the spiritual head of a group leaving northern California where things had “gone sour” due to drugs and violence and the end of the Summer of Love, Ina May helped a friend give birth. The women in the group started delivering each other’s babies. Gaskin knew she had found her calling.

Years of research (documented as she reads from textbooks in her impressive private library), supplemented by the hands-on delivery of over a thousand babies, led to the medication-free, supportive delivery centers of The Farm, often with husbands and other kids present. It’s fun to see the new/old oils which can soften the cervix, trippy to hear a cellist playing in the background of a birthing room. Other Gaskin-trained midwives scientifically explain the orgasmic-like “high” from hyper-hormones at birth time, something women will miss if zonked out on painkillers.

The editing by Kate Amend is particularly adroit, gracefully weaving in black-and-white footage of the counterculture; some of the scenes of San Francisco hippiedom and protests against the Vietnam War may be familiar, but not the original footage of The Farm in Tennessee. Without making a huge deal of it, there are contrasting sequences of then and now—long hair and braids, peasant–like dancing in the fields—and decades-later interviews. Some stayed on as midwives, trained by Gaskin, some left after The Farm gained national publicity and became too much of a free-for-all. The then guru-like Stephen Gaskin is now in a supportive role for his famous wife, but it’s OK with him: “I don’t mind being a Sherpa because I’m still getting up the mountain.”

The Farm was also where Ina May wrote her most famous book, Spiritual Midwifery. In a cottage-industry effort, it was printed communally there, becoming an underground classic passed around from woman to woman.

Perhaps the climax of the film, an example of her credo, is a breech birth. Get set for tension. Gaskin tells us very few doctors even attempt a breech these days, going directly to the C-section. Gaskin knew what to do (though she fears the technique will die out) and crisis was averted. Other tricks which we see in original video footage show a technique for when a baby is “stuck”—the mother is turned, the pelvis expands (this we have to imagine). Today that mother, one of the original Farm midwives, says how lucky we are to have the video—many babies’ lives will be saved. Gaskin learned these approaches, she says, from other midwives. We see a black-and-white photo of one accomplished “native” midwife who delivered more than 2,000 babies; in another paean to oral history and folk wisdom, Gaskin says she just shut up and listened to her.

Yet Birth Story somewhat glosses over the fact that midwifery is illegal in some states (though it may explain a song about witches at the end of the film). Gaskin and the other midwives interviewed reassure us that they do not take on high-risk pregnancies, and are emergency-ready with kits and wheels to the nearest hospital. And Gaskin demonstrates via statistics and a quilt reminiscent of the famous AIDS project that numbers of women dying in standard hospital births have increased dramatically in recent years.

Most of this is lovely, and convincing in a sweetly feminist, if at times spacey, way. It’s as if Our Bodies, Ourselves had a nice cup of chamomile tea and decided to kick back while still selling its organic message. (Though there is some retributive glee as Gaskin and midwife Pamela Hunt observe that they are finally gaining credibility with doctors. They believe having gray hair helps.)

Ironically, Birth Story ends with Gaskin as an observer, while a woman delivers her own child in a water birth in one of the farm’s cozy delivery rooms. (And for that highly specialized group who may be writing a history of cinematic home water births, the first was in Morgan Spurlock’s Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?, though he tastefully went to a blank screen at the actual moment of his son’s birth.) If babies keep getting delivered in tubs, even Ina May Gaskin will soon be out of work.

Some small proportion of the footage is cloying, with too many shots of pollinating bees, butterflies, dirt roads, and putting up fruits for the winter. You don’t know whether to get out your old granola recipe or take a shower. But for a younger viewership which thinks “the ’70s” was only about burning the flag and wearing tie-dyed shirts at Woodstock, here is another take. It’s an attitudinal change, with a practical program, via an unabashedly admiring tribute to the woman responsible for it: not Ma Nature, though you do hear her whispering, “Listen to your body.”