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My Womb for God's Purposes: The Perils of Unassisted Childbirth in the Quiverfull Movement

Distrustful of experts, many Quiverfull followers are leaving childbirth to God. The recent death of a newborn, however, exposes a growing rift.

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.