A University of Wisconsin professor received a Summer 2021 Research Service Grant Award for her project “Birthing Paradox: Race, Colonization, and Radicalism in US Midwifery.”

The Research Service Grant Program recognizes service contributions of untenured faculty members — especially women and people of color — according to the UW Professional Development website.

The university has offered this grant for over 10 years. One to three are typically awarded each summer, Interim Assistant Vice Provost Tanya Hubanks said.

Annie Menzel, the sole recipient this year, is a professor in UW’s Department of Gender & Women’s Studies.

Her summer project focuses on the contradictory nature of homebirth midwifery in the United States.

“Even though such a small number of people choose homebirth, it’s been incredibly influential in shaping rhetoric and ideas about birth,” Menzel said. “It’s also transformative in the present day as a kind of quietly radical political care … but contemporary homebirth midwifery tends to be disproportionately accessible to white consumers with means.”

On one side of this discussion is the white midwives and homebirth clients who called for the demedicalization of birth during the 1970s, Menzel said. This generation of women was driven by trauma from hospital births which included non-consensual drugging, being tied down to birth tables and having their babies forcibly removed, Menzel said.

Menzel said she believes these women’s experiences of violation gave them tunnel vision regarding reproductive violence at the heart of colonialism and anti-Black racism. While they could access hospitals and were encouraged to reproduce, they were not cognizant of the reproductive violence, sexual violence and forced sterilization being used as a primary weapon against indigenous and Black communities.

“In the eyes of obstetricians and mainstream medical care, they were always valued as the legitimate birthers — married, white, able-bodied women,” Menzel said. “And yet, at the same time, they did really experience some very violent practices that were just routine at the hospital at the time.

Menzel said their trauma should not be ignored, but by positing themselves as the victim of medical dominion, they perpetuated exclusions which became increasingly apparent as homebirth midwifery became more regulated during the 1980s and 90s.

For instance, Menzel examined a phenomenon of tokenizing Black midwives — as sociologist Keisha Goode tracked — and failures to take up the concerns of anti-racism of genocide and dispossession.

Another related paradigm involves inaccessibility for non-white midwives and clients. Menzel said many forms of insurance do not cover homebirths and in most states they are not reimbursed by Medicaid. The legality and regulation of homebirths also differs from state to state, Menzel said.

“Because it’s all on a state-by-state basis what midwives are called and how they’re regulated, that is actually also a big reason why it remains inaccessible,” Menzel said. “At this point, in a majority of cases, if you want a homebirth, you have to be able to pay all or a big chunk of it out of pocket.”

Menzel said the project also looks at the breadth of countercultures within the movement to reclaim birth in the 1970s. Specifically, it will focus on the tension between founding constituencies like conservative Christian communities and lesbian midwives, according to Menzel.

Menzel said she is also interested in looking at ways to push past home birth midwifery’s structural barriers in order to clear a path for just and patient-centered care accessible to all.

“It really concerns me that that’s the case even within midwifery which does offer a really beautiful model but again is hampered by these exclusions still being perpetuated even with this potentially transformative model of care,” Menzel said.

Menzel said she focused her work on the paradoxes she observed for many years. Since training as a midwife and living in these contradictions, Menzel said she continues to read about and speak with the midwifery community.

For example, Menzel said she looks to many reproductive justice visionaries including Madison’s Harambee Village doulas, Milwaukee’s Maroon Calabash and Tehmina Islam of Access Midwifery to hear their perspectives regarding the ways and means through which white midwifery continues to put barriers in the paths of aspiring midwives of color.

She said she also hopes to highlight the work and perspective of the Wiiji-Nitaawiginaawasojig Indigenous Birth Services in Northern Wisconsin.

“Birthing Paradox: Race, Colonization, and Radicalism in US Midwifery” will continue the conversation with birth communities about these exclusions, Menzel said.

“I feel like this project for me is a big collaborative attempt to … pull the parts of midwifery that are not aligned with life force into alignment in the service of shifting toward a world where everyone gets the care that they need,” Menzel said. “Obviously my project can’t do all that but I want to be a tiny part of the work that’s going on toward that.”