Birth warriors or just beneficiaries of white privilege?

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There’s a story currently making the Internet rounds that purports to be a tale of heroic anti-vaxxing birth warrior parents who are being harassed by child protection authorities for their unconventional choices.

Hermine Hayes-Klein, of Human Rights in Childbirth, was appalled at the way a young couple, Rachel and Dustin, was treated. Rachel had an unanticipated breech birth in a hospital; refused all testing and refused vaccines. The hospital called child protection authorities who determined that the baby should be put in foster care until a court hearing. Hayes-Klein was so appalled that she represented Rachel and Dustin pro bono in a court hearing on parental competence.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Is a hospital is being vilified for daring to hold white parents to the same standards they would have held parents of color?[/pullquote]

…[M]y phone started blowing up about a young man’s social media post that his wife had just given birth at a Portland hospital, and after refusing vaccines and arguing with hospital staff, their newborn was being taken by DHS (Oregon’s department for child protective services)…

Ms. Hayes-Klein chose to portray Rachel and Dustin as persecuted because of their birth choices, but I can’t help wondering if this has nothing to do with birth and everything to do with white privilege. Situations like these arise with families of color each and every day but the folks from Human Rights in Childbirth aren’t rushing to represent them.

Why might DHS have been called?

1. The family was homeless, living in a van and wandering the country.

… They drove to Costa Rica, but didn’t find their home there. They sold the car and flew to Sacramento, where they began a journey by hippie van, greyhound bus etc. up through places in Northern California and Oregon. Rachel saw midwives along the route, was having a healthy pregnancy, and hoped to give birth in her new home with a midwife when the baby came. It was due on September 22 based on her LMP. By early September, they were in Oregon and their housing situation had not resolved itself. Rachel flew back to Florida where she could stay with her mother when she gave birth. But then she decided that she really wanted to be with Dustin when this baby came.

On September 19, Rachel flew from Florida to Portland, from which she intended to travel south to where Dustin was working and living on a farm in Southern Oregon. She went into labor on the plane. By the time they landed at PDX, the flight attendants were aware that she was in labor and had an ambulance waiting at the airport. They took her to the hospital…

2. They had no visible means of support.

3. The mother had no prenatal records of any kind and could not prove she had received care.

4. The father had an arrest record, which Hayes-Klein dismisses out of hand.

This couple are dreadlocked vegans in their 20s, who used to have a shop in Florida where they sold hemp clothing and products among other things, we all know this kind of semi-psychedelic shop. Hemp is associated with cannabis, which is still illegal in Florida, and the police came into this shop many times and harassed them. They had confrontations with police several times and even arrests for “disorderly conduct.”

5. The parents refused drug testing.

In contrast, Hayes-Klein implies (though does not state) that DHS got involved because of the parents’ alternative choices. When the baby was found to be breech, she had breech vaginal birth.

… The doctor rubbed the ultrasound wand over her belly, and said, “The baby’s breech! Prep her for c-section.” Rachel was asking what that meant, and the doctor was answering “You’re going to be numb from your chest down.” Rachel asked, “Have any of you ever delivered a breech baby naturally?” They all indicated, no. Before they could wheel her to surgery, the baby’s body came out of her vagina. She was pinned back by her arms and her legs pulled up and back. The doctor put her hands on the baby and started “delivering” it. There was a loud snap. The baby’s arm was broken at a right angle. Her apgars was 4 and 8…


Later that morning, the pediatrician came in and wanted to give the baby vaccines and do blood work on “mom.” Rachel said she would prefer to wait till the next day to discuss any more injections on the baby or herself… The doctor said that they were leaving him with no choice but to call DHS.


A little later, Dustin and Rachel were cuddling with the baby. The door opened, and a social worker entered with 4 fully-armed police in bullet-proof vests. Rachel remembers a nurse with them saying, “Why didn’t you get an ultrasound?” Dustin angrily objected that this was an intrusion and a violation of their rights. They told him to go get his ID from the hippie bus, and then he was blocked from re-entering the hospital. The baby was taken to a different floor from Rachel, and she would only be allowed to see it for feedings…

Hayes-Klein rode to the rescue:

There in the quiet hospital hallway were two fully-armed policemen in bullet-proof vests. I looked in the door beside them, and there was this weeping young mother, hunching her bare shoulders toward the door and holding her precious baby to her breasts. The baby had just fallen asleep nursing in her arms. I started crying immediately; maybe it’s unprofessional, but what can I say; this is who I am. I walked in and said, “I’m on your side.”

Who was on the baby’s side? Hayes-Klein doesn’t say.

The next day I went with them to the DHS meeting to form a safety plan …

On Monday we went to the hearing. Suffice to say that the judge did not want to discuss the merits of the DHS action itself, but tabled those until a trial of the case on October 28. She agreed that the baby could be returned to Rachel under a safety plan that included following all doctors’ orders.

Hayes-Klein presents a touching photo of the reunion. I’ve blurred the faces; the impact of the picture for me is how white and blonde everyone is.


… The reunion that followed was healing balm to the wounds on my heart from seeing their separation on Thursday. Little baby was asleep and looked sort of closed in. Her parents fell on her, weeping and cooing. Her mama untied her from the car seat, and baby started to cry. Rachel lifted her up to her heart and she stopped crying. I helped them into an enclave with benches where they could cuddle together as a family. Baby snuggled to mama’s breast and started to relax. Then she opened her eyes. And as her father wept and said, “Daddy’s here baby; I’ll protect you; everything’s all right,” she started to smile.

I don’t doubt for a moment that these parents love their baby, but that was not the issue. DHS requested a safety plan because they were concerned for the baby’s SAFETY, fearing that the parents did not have the knowledge or the means to properly care for her.

Hayes-Klein recognizes that the hospital professionals were trying to do what they thought was right (and, although she doesn’t mention it, what they were almost certainly legally REQUIRED to do), but:

The problem is the power imbalance, and the destructive momentum of child-protective cases if their merit is not scrutinized closely at their outset. Judges rely on hospital workers as the front line that see many cases of genuine neglect and abuse that need state intervention. Cases like these raise the need for judges to be aware of how triggers and power can work together to lead to child-neglect complaints that are really about doctor-patient conflict. One place to start is by making clear for everybody that the parents had the right to informed consent and refusal on all the interventions they are charged with medical neglect refusing…

Yet Hayes-Klein fails to present any evidence that breech birth and refusal of vaccines had anything to do with calling DHS.

Hayes-Klein tells a story of heroic lawyer representing heroic parents who became a target of a punitive DHS investigation in retaliation for unconventional birth choices.

I can’t help wondering if we are looking at a situation where a hospital is being vilified simply for daring to hold white parents to the same standards they would have held parents of color.