Of midwives and Mennonites: It pays for journalists to dig deeper when faith is involved

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When I lived in Maryland in a Catholic community that took seriously their church’s prohibition against artificial birth control, I knew a lot of women who had babies. Frequent babies. And a number of them were fervent advocates of home births.

They all had their favorite midwives as most had been to a hospital for their first delivery, then swore to never again step foot in an obstetrics ward.

The New York Times and other media have been covering an embattled midwife for a large Mennonite community in New York state’s Finger Lakes region. It’s pretty clear that lots of issues are involved in this story — including religion, clearly including the faith of the woman doing the delivering.

But that topic is strangely absent in the Times story, which starts here:

PENN YAN, N.Y. — For a generation of Mennonite women, Elizabeth Catlin was integral to the most joyous occasions of their lives: the births of their children.

Ms. Catlin was a second mother, they said, a birthing attendant who helped them with prenatal care and then caught their babies during hundreds of natural childbirth deliveries at their homes.

So it was incomprehensible to them that on a recent winter day they were in a courtroom to support Ms. Catlin, who in December had been arrested and charged with four felonies for practicing midwifery in a county about an hour southeast of Rochester.

It was Ms. Catlin’s second arrest: She had been charged the month before in a neighboring county, where the State Police wereinvestigating her possible role in a newborn’s death.

Police said she misrepresented herself as a licensed midwife — a status that requires a master’s degree and completion of an accredited midwifery program. She does, however, have a credential from the Northern American Registry of Midwives, which New York state doesn’t accept.

Ms. Catlin maintains that she served only as a birth attendant because New York does not recognize her midwifery certification. She has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

“My life is ground to a halt,” Ms. Catlin said. “My passion has been taken away.”

Her clients also reject the charge that she distorted her training, and they are making rare public overtures of support, like the courtroom appearance.

“Normally the Mennonites do not speak out — and especially the women don’t — because we’re kind of taught the men are the leaders,” said Kathleen Zimmerman, a 37-year-old mother of eight children, four of whom Ms. Catlin helped to deliver.

Next comes the article’s one nod to religion.

The women’s show of solidarity underscores what is at stake for the Mennonites, a conservative Christian denomination. They shun technology, and the majority do not drive cars or have health insurance. Because they mostly avoid hospitals, natural home births are a way of life.

More broadly, their feelings about Ms. Catlin, who is not a Mennonite, help to reveal the lack of maternal care in rural areas. The Mennonites in New York largely live in counties where there is a shortage of licensed midwives and obstetricians, experts say.

If Catlin is not a Mennonite, then what is she? Is there a faith stance that informs what she does? Instead we get what tmatt likes to call “vague, courageous religious faith syndrome.”

Looking at other stories on this topic, I saw this piece in the (Rochester, N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle on the support Catlin has gotten from local Mennonites, who raised $8,000 at her arraignment to bail her out of jail.

Ivan Martin, one of the Mennonites quoted, said that home births aren’t a matter of doctrine, but they are a preferred way to deliver babies among these believers.

Martin said he finds it perplexing that the state allows for women to choose abortion, but seemingly disallows women to choose who they want present during the delivery of a child.

"This is a legal monster that has gotten out of hand so women have lost a different angle of reproductive rights, There is this hue and cry about women wanting control of their own bodies, but should a mother not also be able to choose a home birth?" he said. "And there is no law at present to say who can be there, it could be your mother, your daughter or the garbageman if that is your preference. Why not Mrs. Catlin?" …

"To us it seems basic human rights are at stake," he said. "As Mennonites, we do not want to become a noisy, clamorous subculture but we wish someone would take heed of the pleas of this community here."

Kind of a different take on reproductive rights, no? The Finger Lakes Times suggested the issue was more economic than doctrinal. Hospital births are too expensive for Mennonites, it said, because many aren’t insured. Also, when labor starts, Mennonites and Amish have limited transport options — we’re still talking horse-and-buggies here — so home births make sense.

Once again, the beliefs that drive the main character in this drama is kept in a vague cloud.

We do know from this Yahoo.com piece, that she had 14 children herself (some of whom are shown, with grandchildren, in the above photo), so that clues me in that there’s some kind of religious belief at work here.

Does she consider what she does some sort of Christian duty? Is this work or a ministry?

We’ll not find out from the New York Times.

Yahoo did the best story of the lot in terms of explaining the issues at hand and bringing in the religion connection. After quoting two of Catlin’s female fans:

Both are Mennonites, adherents to the Old Order culture who, similar to the Amish, reject military service and political office, and avoid most modern conveniences — including the internet, TV, radio and automobiles (with some but not all orders relying on horse-drawn buggies) and unnecessary medical interventions, especially when it comes to birth. By all accounts, the women of the community deeply love and trust Catlin. And despite the quiet stoicism that’s the norm for women in their culture, they have been speaking up loudly in her defense. …

Catlin’s arrest has galvanized the Mennonite community she served like nothing before — inspiring scores of the women (and many men), unaccustomed to protesting or making a scene, to rally in her defense at court dates and through a flood of letters sent to local papers, as well as by fundraising for her bail and other legal costs (including through a GoFundMe page). When investigators suggested that Catlin had been tricking Mennonite women for years, the women angrily denied the idea in local reports. “She was always upfront with us,” Sauder tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “She was not fooling or exploiting us.”

As they say, pregnancy is not a disease, and quite a few women don’t like hospitals that treat it that way.

Sometimes religious faith is involved here and other times it’s not. In this case, attention was paid to the religion of the women giving birth. I’m betting there’s a story on behalf of the woman who helped them — about which no one thought to ask.

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