Midwife Abby Odam was sentenced April 17th to 4 years in prison without possibility of parole, convicted of 6 felonies related to her practice of traditional homebirth midwifery in San Diego County: 5 counts of practicing medicine without a license and one count of willful child endangerment. While waiting to be sentenced, she was re-arrested on felony conspiracy charges, with bail initially set at $1 million. She has yet to be arraigned on the conspiracy charges.
Abby Odam has been an established midwife for many years in San Diego County, attending to hundreds of births. The District Attorney decided to stop her from practicing as part of his agenda to eliminate home births from the entire county. Because the statute of limitations had run out on misdemeanor charges of practicing midwifery without a license, the DA charged her with felony charges of practicing medicine without a license. “Expert” obstetrician and pediatrician testimony “established” childbirth as inherently dangerous. Therefore, as a non-medical birth attendant, she was prosecuted for “willful child endangerment.”
Some of Abby’s past clients, including those who organized in her defense, were threatened by the DA and police with CPS cases, loss of custody of their kids, and charges of child endangerment for choosing homebirth, if they didn’t turn the State’s evidence. A midwife from the Bay Area who testified in Abby’s behalf was followed back home on the airplane by an undercover agent who later phoned her to make sure she knew the state was watching.
Women have called on community midwives to attend them through their pregnancies and births as long as women have given birth. When male doctors invented the field of obstetrics, expanding the sickness model of medicine to include birth, they organized to exclude midwives from what they saw as a lucrative marketing niche. Patriarchal society had a broader interest in pathologizing birth and taking it out of the hands of women. The power of a woman giving birth autonomously is huge. This transformative potential for women living in a culture based on distrust, alienation and subjugation of our own bodies is radicalizing. Autonomous birth not only empowers the birthing mother, but demands a level of deep respect and awe of everyone in the room witnessing the birth. Very subversive.
Midwives in some parts of the country have continued to practice, especially in poor, rural areas where doctors don’t make enough money to serve birthing women. Even these midwives were slowly squeezed out of practice through legal pressure and changes in the mid 1900’s. In the 1970’s, a resurgence of homebirth grew, especially in California, out of women’s refusal to subject themselves and their babies to “state of the art” obstetric practices. Women had their babies at home, assisted only by friends and partners. Some of these women taught themselves from midwives around the world, from granny midwives from 40’s and earlier, friendly family practice and OB docs and others, and from isolated communities throughout the US where home births have always been the norm.
In the state of California, a license law has been on the books, however the administrative structure allowing midwives to obtain the license was dismantled in the 1940’s. Since then, midwives have all practiced illegally, until this year, when new licenses became available. Previous to this, our standards of practice have not been written, rather they vary from midwife to midwife, and are based on local community desires. We do not establish safety through external regulation, but rather through personal responsibility, peer feedback and clear communication with our clients.
California’s new license law follows New York’s, the most rigid in the US. Although the field of midwifery is separate from obstetrics, licensed midwifery is subsumed under the medical hierarchy. Licensed midwives must practice under obstetrician-approved protocols.
Some midwives choose not to be licensed, hoping to retain more autonomy in their practices, and to protect the autonomy of pregnant women who are willing to take the fullest responsibility for their birth practices — both it’s risks and triumphs. Some midwives choose to become licensed, hoping it will bring them respect and a more open relationship with medical professionals, with whom we must frequently interact. Licensing brings the possibility of insurance payments and Medi-Cal for prenatal and birth care, and it allows midwives to life without fear of arrest.
If Abby Odam loses her appeal, the case will set precedent. not only will it further repress midwives, but it will limit women’s reproductive choice. As argued in a 1977 midwifery court case, if a woman chose not to exercise her right to terminate a pregnancy within 24 weeks \(the “age of viability” established by Roe v. Wade\), the state has a “vested interest in the well-being of the fetus.” The argument of the prosecution in this case gives the state the ability to supersede the rights of the pregnant woman in deciding how, where, when and with whom she will choose to give birth. Since 1977 over 50 midwives have been prosecuted in California alone.
It should be noted that this case was brought to court immediately after a moratorium \(while they applied for licenses\) on arresting midwives ended. This case is also very similar in argument to a recent case brought by New York against an independent midwife there. As California’s license is modeled on New York’s, perhaps California state and medical establishment is modeling their repression of midwives and reproductive rights workers on New York’s as well. Abby Odam’s case can not be looked at as an isolated incident.
Unfortunately, the midwifery community, like many other marginalized communities, has a spotty record of supporting it’s own. Peers and midwives have distanced themselves from midwives on trial, and even go so far as to discourage other comrades from supporting the midwife either. The introduction of licensing of midwives could produce a split in the community, as more establishment-oriented licensed midwives are abandoning their autonomous, independent midwife comrades because of fear of association and arrest.
Abby Odam is a political prisoner, and who will be next? We independent midwives and we autonomous mothers and families have yet to enjoy full support and inclusion in the reproductive rights movement\(s\). Let us hope this changes soon. Giving birth can be a profoundly revolutionary act, and it matters how each one of us is born.
For more info contact:
Abby Odam Defense Alliance
P.O. Box 127643
San Diego, CA 92112