My Womb for His Purposes: The Perils of Unassisted Childbirth in the Quiverfull Movement

In the last week of June, two different circles of blogs invested in the Quiverfull movement—both as critics and supporters of the pro-natalist, patriarchal, conservative Christian lifestyle—focused on the sad news of the death of one Quiverfull mother’s child shortly after birth. The woman was Carri Chmielewski, author of the now-private blog “Carri Me Away,” where she described her Quiverfull lifestyle, eschewing contraception, having as many children as God gave her, submitting to her husband’s leadership, and, in a related conviction common among Quiverfull adherents, her plans to deliver her children through unassisted childbirth—a home birth with no doctors, nurses, or midwives to help her and her husband through labor and aftercare.

For weeks, Chmielewski’s plans drew the scrutiny and concern of Quiverfull critics, such as the commenters on the wryly-named ”Free Jinger” forum, a discussion board dedicated to “freeing” Jinger Duggar, one of the daughters of the Quiverfull Duggar family featured on reality TV show 18 Kids and Counting. Commenters there and elsewhere followed news of Chmielewski’s pregnancy, at first with light snark directed at this exemplar of Quiverfull conviction, and then growing concern as Chmielewski described mounting complications: she reportedly measured much larger than expected for a normal pregnancy and discussed her own doubts and misgivings about going through with the unassisted birth.

Because of these worries, Chmielewski sought the opinion of a certified professional midwife (a class of midwife distinct from certified nurse midwives, who have extensive medical training) from Central Indiana Home Birth Midwives. According to retired OB-GYN blogger Amy Tuteur, the midwife told Chmielewski that she was carrying twins, and maintained her diagnosis despite an ultrasound that only revealed one fetus, claiming that one twin was “hiding” behind the other. As Chmielewski was nearly three weeks past her due date, the midwife advised her to wait; when the baby was born, Chmielewski suffered amniotic fluid embolus (a rare condition that can occur in hospital births as well), causing the child, Benaiah, to die, and the mother to survive in critical condition.

At Salon’s Broadsheet blog and the Free Jinger forums, commenters weighed on whether the death constituted actionable child neglect, in the model of Christian Scientists—or the recent case involving the Nemenhah Band—refusing medical care for their children. Chmielewski’s husband, who critics charge has erased or hidden much of his wife’s past writing, described her survival as a miracle of God, who spared her even as He took their son.

Where Quiverfull Meets New Age

The tragedy in the Chmielewski family also prompted other discussion of the role that unassisted childbirth has within the Quiverfull movement. Vyckie Garrison, a former Quiverfull follower who writes about leaving the movement at the blog “No Longer Quivering,” described her own experiences with unattended home births, including one that ended in the emergency room after Garrison suffered a partial uterine rupture.

“Like you,” Garrison wrote in an open letter to Chmielewski, “I held to a firm conviction that children are a blessing from the Lord and I strongly desired to have as many blessings as He chose to send my way. Faced with the very real possibility of half a dozen or more pregnancies in my future, I was highly motivated to diligently seek out the very safest—least expensive, traumatic, painful, and unpleasant birthing options available.”

Garrison described a path taken by many other Quiverfull women, who progress further into the movement, first forswearing contraception and then hospitals, picking up additional, related convictions as part of an all-encompassing “home lifestyle” independent of what they consider the tyranny of outside “experts,” whether in medicine, the education system, or denominational leadership. Chmielewski’s description of herself in signing her online writing, “Homeschooler, Homebirther, Homechurcher,” is an apt summary of the lifestyle: one of deeply interwoven home industries, where a family is reliant on itself to as great an extent as possible, but ultimately always reliant on God.

As Chmielewski wrote on her blog, “God never meant for man (Pregnant Women) to surrender himself (herself) to the total control of man (dr./technology, etc.) God considers that idolatry. We are to surrender ourselves to GOD.”

While not all Quiverfull believers agree that medical decisions and labor need be left solely up to God, the shared language of reliance on God and suspicion of experts points to the anti-establishment or “agrarian,” off-the-grid ethos of many believers. It’s fertile ground for home birthing to flourish as a sub-movement of Quiverfull families hoping to make the birthing experience a part of the productive, independent home where husbands learn how to “catch the babies” themselves, both saving money and demonstrating their faith. A number of Quiverfull families follow a similar arc (as had Garrison) graduating from conventional hospital births—often where mothers felt pushed into a birth plan they didn’t desire—to midwife-assisted births at home, to the final challenge of unattended home births. It’s a logical extreme of the movement whose naturalistic bent actually overlaps with the back-to-the-land, new age counterculture in some ways, with Quiverfull moms staking out their territory of natural pregnancy in the odd company of feminist doulas and naturopaths, opposed as they are to high rates of hospital C-sections.

The Quiverfull Fringe: Caesarean-Sections Deliver Babies unto Caesar—and Through Him, Satan

Although unassisted childbirth is not at all limited to Quiverfull believers, the practice has certainly been taken up by the community, where the refrain to surrender oneself to God, to lean not on one’s own understanding but to trust and obey, take on a particularly literal meaning when it comes to the body. This birthing refrain includes many of the core concepts found elsewhere in the movement, which stresses that God will take care of his flock if they put utter and complete faith in Him.

Garrison describes her own past attempts at unassisted childbirth:

I had envisioned a glorious testimony of God’s protection and provision—His reward for my complete trust and obedience in allowing Him to use my womb for His purposes. I imagined myself explaining after my successful home birth that it was because I had been faithful in seeking His will for my life that the Lord had carried me and my baby safely through.

The flip side of that trust and faith can lead women to ignore all doubts or intuitions as challenges to one’s faith, as Chmielewski seemed to when she wrote (italics added):

I have thought about my wondering and doubting and I have often thought am I saying that God I do not think you are handling this situation right?… God will refresh me and fill me up daily… He will provide my needs and my babies or baby’s needs… I need to trust Him and keep him in control of this birth and not me!

Unassisted childbirth has found a home in the fundamentalist communities of the United States and Australia. Part of the reason for this shared enthusiasm across continents is due to the popularity of the Quiverfull-friendly teachings of Nancy Campbell, editor of the conservative Christian women’s magazine Above Rubies, which has a large readership in all three countries Campbell has lived: New Zealand, Australia, and now the United States. While Campbell has not been a particularly zealous proponent of unassisted childbirth, she has in the past helped promote an extreme version of the practice taught by Carol Balizet, head of the obscure, Tampa, Florida-based Home in Zion Ministries, that is condemned even by fellow unassisted childbirthers.

Balizet, a former nurse and the author of a number of books on Christian home-living, motherhood, and home birthing, represents a fringe expression of the Quiverfull suspicion of mainstream, institutional experts. She condemns banks, public schools, “statist” government, and denominational churches, but she saves her harshest judgment for institutional medicine: a bastion of pagan religion, where doctors serve as “high priests.” These priests, Balizet argues, make pagan sacrifices through their surgical incisions, so that through Caesarean-section births, the newborn is delivered, as it were, to Caesar, and through him, Satan.

Balizet urges Christian mothers to deliver their babies at home, a movement she advocated through her book, Born in Zion, which gained access to a wide audience when Nancy Campbell’s Above Rubies ministry endorsed it. Balizet wrote:

Our goal is to encourage separation from the counterfeits of the world, and entrance into what is symbolically called Zion. This is a life TOTALLY dependent on God alone. We advocate home childbirth, home schooling, home healing, often even home churching, and other things which accompany a separation from the world and a return to the God-centered reality of the kingdom.

Balizet goes on to describe home births as taking place in Zion rather than Egypt—language which echoes the rhetoric of conservative Christian homeschooling group Exodus Mandate, which calls for the removal of God’s children from “Pharaoh’s schools.”

Chief among the lessons of the book were Balizet’s claims, based in Pentecostal Word-Faith theology, that all physical ills have spiritual origins. She taught that difficult and painful labors were potentially due to disagreements between the parents over child discipline, while perfect childbirths were the result of proper spiritual preparation. She reportedly has walked out on women in labor on receipt of a prophetic message from God that Satan was deceitfully creating the impression of a troubled birth, and argued that “Ineffective labor can also be caused by words of opposition and death spoken by others about the couple’s decision to trust God.” This last recalls Carri Chmielewski’s concern that her doubts about proceeding with the unassisted birth were a lack of faith, and that others’ warnings gave an entrance for evil.

Above Rubies does not make the same claims as Balizet regarding the medical establishment, but staff sold the book at camps and retreats and plugged it on their Web site as, “A book about home birth that will inspire your faith. Even if you are not interested in home birth, this book is a great faith-builder.”

The endorsement didn’t last. In 2001, Balizet’s antipathy to medicine brought her name and work into a tragic scandal when a 31-year-old Australian mother of five died following Balizet’s proscription of hospitals during an unassisted, unattended “Zion Home Birth.” The mother suffered severe hemorrhaging and swelling during the birth, but received no medical attention. After several weeks of extreme pain, she died. Balizet’s teachings were subsequently publicized and derided as cultish and irresponsible, though Above Rubies’ Australian director, Val Stares, appeared on national news to give a tepid defense of the book, arguing that the mother’s death was not necessarily a “failure” of Balizet’s philosophy, but rather showed the mother had been “seeking truth and walking in faith.”

Above Rubies in Australia and the United States later declared they would no longer carry Balizet’s book. Other Quiverfull-minded Christians such as Jill Barrett—who tallied seven infant and three maternal deaths due to “Zion Home Births”—condemned Balizet as a heretic who sought to direct God’s will through supernatural means and was besmirching the name of Christian midwifery with her judgmental approach to women’s health.

Clearly, such strong criticism coming from within the Quiverfull movement is an indication of the wide gulf between the maximalistic, spirit-driven version of unassisted childbirth advocated by Balizet (who has disparaged women who’ve had hospital C-sections as tainted) and the more compassionate, mainstreamed versions which acknowledge the necessity of midwives or doctors in case of emergency.

But there are overlapping convictions, suspicions, and sensibilities which seem to lead Quiverfull practitioners of unassisted childbirth down parallel paths. As ministry critics at the cult-watch organization, Lookout (formerly known as Concerned Christian Growth Watch), have argued, “The Above Rubies’ emphasis on the importance of wombs, breasts, motherhood, and fertility, the judgmental comments against all forms of contraception… provide a ready groundwork for the acceptance of the more extreme and bizarre claims of Carol Balizet.”

Similarly, as Vyckie Garrison noted, her Quiverfull convictions led her to desire total reliance on, and trust in, God, neglecting her own instincts and health in favor of obedience and submission. “Our deeply beloved belief system denied us an important safety net,” she wrote to Carri Chmielewski, “that of our own feelings. When our bodies and minds screamed out, ‘Something is wrong!’ our faith calmed us down.” And in some cases, that calm, the “peace that passes all understanding” of trusting entirely in God, can be very dangerous indeed.