Brazen Woman 1997: Faith Gibson

   Faith Gibson was a labor and delivery nurse in the 1960's and 70's. Over the years she witnessed two very different types of births. The standard of care at the time was to administer large doses of narcotics and general anesthesia to all labor patients, do large episiotomies, and then use forceps to deliver the baby. Due to the medications, many babies were born in distress and had trouble beginning to breathe.

   In the hospital where she worked, the one population that avoided this type of labor management was the African American mothers. Segregation relegated African American women to a basement ward where they were treated with “benign neglect” by the hospital staff. They labored in four-bed wards also occupied by any other non-contagious patients. The other women, often older, would support them with tips on how to deal with labor. Faith remembers watching these patients labor while they stood or squatted at the bedside. They explained to her that lying down in the bed made labor much too painful.

   The nurses were responsible for wheeling these women upstairs to the delivery room once they started pushing, which meant the nurses ‘caught’ quite a few of these babies in the elevator. Because these mothers had no drugs or anesthesia, the babies came out vigorous and breathing. Faith saw the difference between these births and the drugged out labors of the white women upstairs.

   When she was pregnant with her first child, she told her OB that she wanted to have a baby “like the African American women did.” He patted her on the knee and said “well then you’d better have your baby before you get to the hospital”. She chose to wait until the last possible minute and sure enough, her daughter Shawn was born in the back seat of the family car before they got to the hospital. She knew then that had she labored in the hospital, she would have been given drugs and would have mistakenly believed that she couldn’t give birth without them.

   After many years of tying unsuccessfully to change these mother-unfriendly birth practices, Faith became fed up and decided to retire from hospital nursing, “hoping never to see another pregnant woman in my life.” She became a domestic Peace Corps volunteer assigned to a community development project. Later she moved to California to work for a Vietnamese resettlement program. It was here that she met Suzanne Arms in the late 1970's and learned about homebirth midwifery for the first time.

   Faith began working with Suzanne to promote midwifery licensure. It was suggested by then Governor Jerry Brown that midwives develop a slide presentation to teach the Legislature about home birth. Faith volunteered to write the script and Donna Driscoll volunteered provide the photographs. Soon after Faith became the media person for the Midwifery Advisory Council of the Department of Consumer Affairs.

   After doing political work with Donna for a while, Faith began to attend homebirths with her. At first Faith assumed that her years as a delivery room nurse mean she already knew everything about how to be a midwife. It took her years of additional training to fully appreciate how distinct the profession of midwifery is from nursing. She trained with Donna for two and one half years before she began practicing independently. Even then she had a lot of trepidation and wondered if she could handle a crisis bleed or shoulder dystocia. But to this day she has never had an emergency beyond her ability to manage.

   After her work with the Midwifery Advisory Council, Faith did little direct political work with California midwives until her arrest in 1991. But she quickly discovered that one couldn’t be criminally prosecuted without becoming politically active. She learned that the Legislature had never passed any law making the traditional practice of midwifery illegal in California. Without any specific authority, the Medical Board simply decreed that midwifery was an illegal practice of medicine.

   This questionable interpretation was based solely on the 1975 California Supreme Court decision in Kate Bowland’s case. The Bowland decision was adjudicated by a panel of supreme court justices in a case that never even went to trial! This illogical conclusion persists to this day – unlicensed midwives continue to be prosecuted, even though the Licensed Midwife Practice Act does not make the unlicensed practice of midwifery illegal. (See ‘Bowland Revisited’ on the College of Midwives website.)

   The criminal charges in the case against Faith were the based solely on accusations by an undercover agent hired by the Medical Board who posed as a homebirth client and alleged things that were blatantly false. Faith was horrified that unsubstantiated allegations by a single undercover agent could lead to arrest and criminal prosecution of anyone targeted by a government agency.

   In April of 1993, on her 16th court appearance, the DA mysteriously dropped the case against her, acknowledging that her practice under the religious exemptions clause was lawful. Soon afterwards she attended a Medical Board meeting to object to the Board’s misuse of undercover agents. She was surprised to find that there were only nine people in the audience -- herself and eight lobbyists for the California Medical Association. “19 political appointees, without any input from the public, were 100% responsible for medical policies affecting 33 million of California residents. That’s ‘regulation without representation’”. She believed it was vitally important that someone represent the common people at these meetings.

   In the years that followed, Faith attended every Medical Board meeting. She learned a tremendous amount about the Board and medical politics in the state. Eventually, she also taught them a lot about midwives. Being a constant presence caused them to get to know and eventually trust her. She went from someone they had put in handcuffs to someone they called when they needed input on midwifery.

   Faith feels that her crowning achievement is the Standard of Care document that got referenced in the law last year. She compiled the document from multiple midwifery sources including Standards of Care from 14 other states. The backbone of the Standard of Care is the recognition of the pregnant woman’s central role as her baby’s primary caregiver. The document recognizes the autonomy of a healthy, mentally-competent mother and her right to make informed decisions. Instead of rules that make the midwife into a ‘perinatal policemen’, forcing women to comply with unwanted medical protocols, the California Standard of Care legally obligates the LM to honor the mother’s informed consent decisions.

   Faith is also quite proud of the College of Midwives’ website that she started in 1994. It is the largest website in the world of cyberspace devoted to community-based midwifery and planned homebirth.

   Faith’s other big achievement for California midwives has been her connection with Senator Figueroa, which she established through Frank Cuny. She helped frame the amendment to the LMPA passed in 2000. While SB 1479 failed to repeal physician supervision, it did legally acknowledge the right of a woman to control the circumstances of her normal birth. Faith paraphrased the CFM “midwifery model of care” definition and had this included in the law, as well as scientific evidence from California birth certificates that established homebirth is as safe as or safer than planned hospital births. She also was able to help midwives across the state carry malpractice insurance for a number of years.

   Faith sees herself as working for the political rights of women to have control over the type of maternity care they receive. When she was expecting her first baby in the 1960's, the only way to avoid unwanted medical intervention was to labor unattended. Since that time she has devoted her professional life making it possible for healthy women with normal pregnancies to have safe and meaningful choices. She sees the independent practice of midwifery as the key to that goal. To her, political activism on behalf of licensed midwifery is central to empowering California midwives, so they can best meet the practical needs of childbearing women in our state.

   Her vision for the future is to reform our national maternity care policies and eventually to rehabilitate the entire maternity care system. In a rehabilitated system, obstetricians, family practice physicians and professional midwives would all enjoy a mutually respectful relationship that acknowledged each other as players on the same team – that of cooperatively providing safe and cost-effective care.

   A long overdue and much needed reform of our national health care policy would integrate physiological principles with the best advances in obstetrical medicine to create a single, evidence-based standard for all healthy women. Physiological management should be the foremost standard for all healthy women with normal pregnancies, used by all practitioners (physicians and midwives) and for all birth settings (hospitals, homes, birth centers). This model of normal childbirth includes the appropriate use of obstetrical intervention for complications or at the mother’s request. Faith calls this “Maternity Care 2.0”.

   Faith believes that the direction we all need to be headed is elevating the public debate about childbirth, moving it away from the punitive and strictly political (a fight which we can’t win!) to the creative and inclusive. Currently, birth only makes it into the public eye when there is an unusual tragedy.

   To this end, she is working on a series of short ‘easy read’ novels that will explore the biology of normal childbearing, the wonder of birth from the viewpoint of the mother, the working life of midwives (from the ridiculous to the sublime!) and the politics of homebirth midwifery from the historic past to the imagined future. She hopes that fact-based fiction will provide a vehicle to inform and inspire coming generations of young women. Her first book is titled The Lilly and the Rose, after the mother whose name is Lilly and the midwife whose name is Rosanna.

   Her greatest desire is to immortalize the noble oral tradition of mothers and midwives, as well as the art and science of modern midwifery, so these valuable sources of institutional memory are preserved for future generations.

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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