Brazen Woman 2005: Karen Ehrlich   

   Karen says that for as long as she can remember, she has always believed newborns to be the most wonderful creatures on the face of the earth. As a young girl, she thought she wanted to work as a nurse in a newborn nursery. After completing a college degree in Speech and English – instead of studying Drama as she dreamed of, but her family discouraged her from – she landed in Mill Valley, where she became an enthusiastic child of the counterculture. To this day she proudly claims her credentials as an aging, unrepentant hippie. 

   When she was 25 years old, Karen spent a year and a half traveling in Europe and Israel. She met a woman in England who was considering becoming a midwife, and a literal lightbulb went off for her. Karen knew this was what she wanted to do, but the training in England required lengthy schooling, a prospect she rejected. Yet when she returned home, she was thrilled to discover that in the short time she was gone, homebirth and midwifery had exploded in California. Suddenly it was everywhere.

   She spent two years in the Baby Midwife Study Group, a group for young women who were becoming interested in midwifery. She was working at SFSU at the time, and took a lunchtime course on Pregnancy Childbirth and the Newborn – she wound up taking the class four times. She also took classes with the Birth Project of the San Francisco Women’s Health Collective. She also joined the Marin chapter of ICEA, and took a labor coaching training.

   She went to her first births as a doula in 1974. Of the first ten births she saw, only two were normal – both of them homebirths. In the hospital, she witnessed women treated like pieces of meat. She says they could have been brushing their teeth for all significance allowed to the experience. Every last bit of hormones were eradicated by the institutional procedures. There was no magic left. This trial by fire only strengthened her resolve to learn midwifery.

   One of those first two homebirths she saw was that of a good friend in Santa Cruz. Karen helped significantly in the birth, and the midwife, Allee Jay, liked her and offered to apprentice her. Her apprenticeship lasted only a year before her mentor graduated her. Everything about how midwifery was growing at that time really pleased her. Women were taking pregnancy and birth into their own hands and taking care of themselves and each other, questioning authority and embracing the natural order. Midwifery was a profession whose time had come, and it grew like Topsy. There was a lot of self-study and study groups. There was no institution saying how and when things must be done. It was truly the apprenticeship model: you hung out with a woman who knows and absorbed her knowledge.

   As a student and a young midwife in Santa Cruz, she became part of the movement for licensing. She embraced the movement because the first efforts at legislation were for decriminalization, not regulation, which the state legislature rejected. This was in 1976-77. The California Supreme Court, in a case involving three of the Santa Cruz midwives, had recently declared pregnancy and childbirth a “condition” and that midwives could be prosecuted for practicing medicine without a license.

  Over the next 17 years, Karen was actively involved with three more bills that were submitted and shot down. The bill that finally did pass was passed “to control us.” Karen says there is no doubt about this – it became clear when midwife-friendly language was removed and replaced with language from the CMA. “But we’re not very controllable. Those of us who were used to practicing without any legal protection at all – we’d been doing it for years – we just kept working.”

   Karen was involved with the CAM certification process and became CAM certified in 1990. She went to every CAM board meeting for over 8 years, and did a lot of committee work around certification and legislation. She has been attending Medical Board meetings regularly for the last couple of years.

   Karen has been very active in public education for midwifery and birth issues. She began guest speaking at a local junior college about 25 years ago, and has also worked at universities, junior high and high schools and business and service clubs. She has frequently spoken to over 500 people per year. While she is exceptionally skilled at being diplomatic with her words, she does not hesitate to rabble rouse, and she doesn’t mind making people uncomfortable. She explains to people that they can hear about the medical model of birth any time, but they only have one brief chance to hear her. She goes in with the intention of opening people’s minds. If some of them change their opinions, it is because they heard the right message at the right time. If they do not, at least they have been exposed to the midwifery model.

   Karen has done guest speaking in classes in early childhood education, human sexuality, women’s studies, sociology and health activism. She tries to be an ambassador for midwifery wherever she goes. She got a masters degree in Health Arts and Sciences in 2003, with the intention of teaching full courses in sexuality and in the politics of childbirth and midwifery at the college level.

   If anyone approaches her after a class who is interested in becoming a midwife, Karen tells her to first join CAM and MANA; that she must understand the issues. “This is an embattled profession, and you must know what you are taking on.”

   Karen currently has a low volume midwifery practice. She explains that she has learned what boundaries she must maintain, in order to continue to midwife without burning out, in terms of how many clients she takes on and how she limits relationships after the postpartum period.

   She has also held many other related jobs, such as Planned Parenthood Community Education Coordinator, and CPSP coordinator for a community clinic. She has served on many committees to improve maternity service in Santa Cruz County.

   Her vision for the future for licensed midwives is that we will be able to work in all settings, as independent brazen midwives in collegial relationships with other medical professionals. She believes that the more we as midwives interface with various health care systems and providers, and the better we are known and know them, the faster our profession will grow healthy.

*Disclaimer* 

CAM celebrates the hard work and dedication of the awardee in midwifery activism. In no way should this award be construed as a determination of the midwife's skill nor as a recommendation to use her services.    


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