Last month, “Lisa” went into labor while 42 weeks pregnant. She spent “six excruciating days in a remote desert home, laboring alone—aside from her husband and the virtual company of more than 6,000 members of a private Facebook group,” according to a harrowing report by the Daily Beast. That group, Free Birth Society, was a community for women who not only want to give birth outside of hospitals, but also without the help of a doula or midwife, or any medical assistance of any kind.
In the end, Lisa—who decided on free birth after stumbling across Free Birth Society’s Instagram page—ended up going to the hospital, after finding “smelly, odd-colored liquid streaming her legs.” It was there that her daughter, Journey Moon, was delivered stillborn.
Throughout the first few days of labor, Lisa had taken to Free Birth Society to write about her pain, as well as her doubts. Fellow group members cheered her on, “calling her a ‘warrior woman’ and urging her to ‘trust the process.’” The group’s members “ran the gamut from crystal-toting Goop readers to blue-collar women who had experienced trauma in past hospital births,” says the Daily Beast. But, most crucially, the group “subscribed to a strict code of conduct: Comments encouraging other members to seek treatment, or questioning a women’s autonomy in any way, would quickly be deleted.”
Three days into labor, Lisa wrote, “Thought I was in transition”—the final labor phase—“at 11:30pm but nows its 3am and it’s intensely painful...like I just want to lie down and for the pain to stop for just a second.” In response, a group member wrote, “My little one was born 4 days ago and she took over 3 days of nonstop contractions. You’re a legend. It will happen.” On day six, the Daily Beast writes:
She got out of bed that morning to find smelly, odd-colored liquid streaming her legs. Her stomach was aching and her bladder distended from being unable to urinate for days. At that point, despite her deepest wishes, she decided it was time to seek medical help.
When she got to the hospital, there was no heartbeat. The piece continues:
Then she remembers pain. The doctors told her to start pushing right away, and she did—for three hours, with no progress. The doctor came back with a vacuum and ordered her to push, then called for an anesthesiologist to knock her out.
The memories become fuzzier from there, but she can still recall hearing herself screaming and not being able to stop. She remembers her husband saying the baby’s head was coming out, and then more pain. Then she blacked out.
“When I woke up I was covered in blood and so was everyone else,” she said. “And it was so quiet in there.”
According to Lisa, the baby died “due to a massive urinary tract infection I had.” She told the Daily Beast that she kept her stillborn baby by her side for two days before taking to Free Birth Society to write, “Life is made up of meetings and partings; that is the way of it. I am sure we shall never forget Journey Moon, or this first parting that there was among us.”
Free Birth Society is part of the broader free birth movement, which is, much like the home birth movement, “rooted in a dissatisfaction with the current obstetrical model,” as the Daily Beast puts it. That model includes a 30 percent cesarean section rate for mothers in the United States. Free birthers also point to unfavorable stats around unwanted medical interventions during labor. But, unlike with the home birth movement, free birthers typically eschew any kind of assistance from a midwife or experienced birth attendant. Sometimes, as in Lisa’s case, it also involves avoiding prenatal checkups as well.
Home births can be very safe, of course. The Daily Beast quotes Bruce Young, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the NYU School of Medicine, as saying that, for the average woman, home births “go smoothly” roughly 80 percent of the time. The remaining 20 percent “would likely involve life-threatening complications for the mother or child,” which is why home birthers often have a midwife on hand, as well as a back-up plan in case of emergency. But, in Lisa’s case, she was virtually surrounded by thousands of women who were forbidden by group rules from recommending any kind of intervention.
After Journey Moon’s death, Lisa was attacked by trolls who called her a “baby killer.” A blogger at Patheos, Katie Paulson, began posting feverishly about the story, and took aim at Free Birth Society’s founder, Emilee Saldaya, who previously worked as a doula and midwife’s assistant. “Emilee is just another scammer,” wrote Paulson. “She provides dangerous advice to expectant mothers with the sole purpose of making money.” Among Saldaya’s advertised offerings is an $899 Ultimate Freebirth Support Package, which promises “ a complete immersion in everything you need to know about in order to optimize your freebirth.”
In response to the outcry, Saldaya decided to close the group and create a “safe and private membership platform.” In a final post to the Facebook group, she acknowledged Journey Moon’s death and said that “every pregnant woman must contend with the possibility of death, which exists for each of us.” She ended with something of a call-to-arms: “This is not the time to run, hide or be silenced. It is a time to become more steadfast, more powerful and more protected in this radical work of healing the deepest wounds on this earth,” she wrote. “I stand and will always stand for women’s reproductive autonomy, our bodily authority, and our freedom to make our own decisions surrounding our health, pregnancies and births.”
Given Saldaya’s response, and that Lisa has been called a “baby killer” by trolls, the story has taken on weird shades of the debate over reproductive rights and access to abortion. But beyond that polarizing rhetoric, there’s the simple question of whether the Facebook group dispensed medical misinformation. For example, according to Paulson—in a horrendously-titled blog, “Mother Decides to have an Unassisted Childbirth and Kills Her Baby”—Lisa expressed worry during labor on the Free Birth Society Facebook page about discolored discharge but was told not to worry about it. Per the group’s rules, any encouragements to go to the hospital would have been deleted.
The threat of over-medicalized, doctor-focused childbirth is very real, but so too is the potential risk associated with a Facebook group filled with thousands of non-experts. There is a woman’s right to choose, and there is also a woman’s right to accurate medical information.