By February 2019, Judith had become unbearably anxious. The 28-year-old Pacific coast native’s due date had come and gone. Just two days shy of 45 weeks pregnant, her belly was stretched so far that it shined, her body was swollen, and nearly everything — from her toes to her hair — ached.
For women who haven’t gone into labor by 42 weeks, just about every medical and birth professional recommends induction — a jump-start to labor from medicines that ripen the cervix or contract the uterus. But Judith, an artist and freethinker who believes in “all that hippy jazz,” had a different kind of birth plan — one that dismissed medical recommendations and relied on nature and intuition, that rejected a sterile hospital for a warm pool in her own home and that avoided doctors and midwives. Instead, Judith wanted to be with only her husband and her closest friend, a plan known as freebirth, or unassisted birth, by the tiny subculture of women who practice it.
Judith couldn’t tell many people about that plan — her husband was supportive, but most of her other family and friends would understandably worry. Instead, Judith, who asked that her full name not be published, spent the last several months of her pregnancy immersed in online spaces where women celebrated her decision and offered support and tips. Private Facebook groups, Instagram accounts, podcasts and online courses had taught Judith everything she thought she needed to know about how her baby would come into the world.
There were doubts — sprouted from seeds planted by real-life friends who knew about her plan and doctors whom Judith had to see to sign up for state insurance benefits. But Judith had fortified herself against the creeping unease with the stories she read online from freebirthing mothers and the real-time support she received on Facebook. With a little help from algorithms that nudged increasingly questionable information and sources her way, Judith had become a part of the internet’s most extreme pregnancy communities.
Any lingering fears were wiped away the moment Judith’s birth started, a month late but on its own.
Judith was elated. She would get to have her baby at home, after all. She told her Facebook groups the good news, that she had lost her mucus plug and that contractions had started. She also asked a question.
“Do babies get more still trying to drop down?” she posted. “I’m getting a couple kicks but nowhere near usual movement.”
While group members filled her post with reassuring comments, telling her to trust herself, her body and her intuition, Judith put down her phone to do the work of birth. She walked and danced for hours through contractions and floated in a pool that her husband filled with water. She listened to music, and as a friend who was a doula massaged her back, she took minutelong naps between contractions.
“I’m doing it,” she thought. Her body was working just as it should, as the stories she'd obsessively read promised that it would.
Until it wasn’t. As the pain increased and the breaks between contractions shortened, Judith tried to keep the vision of her intended birth in mind, but 10 hours into labor, things began to spin out of her control.
She was vomiting and scared. The contractions were coming so hard and fast that she couldn’t right herself before the next wave would hit. She tried to monitor the baby’s heart rate, but she couldn’t stay still or quiet long enough to register a reading on the fetal stethoscope she’d bought. Then her waters broke, and with them came a burst of dark brown meconium, which she recognized as stool that can be dangerous to a baby if inhaled. Judith knew she needed help.
On all fours, Judith rode in the back seat while her husband drove to a nearby hospital, where a team of nurses and doctors attached a monitor to her belly and made quick preparations to deliver her baby. But as Judith rode the wave of another contraction, the room quieted and a doctor stepped forward. There was no heartbeat.
“There's something different about the wail of a mother who's lost her baby,” Judith said. “Your whole responsibility is to protect your child, and I didn’t before he even had a chance to breathe.”
‘I never felt heard’
Judith has wavy chocolate-colored hair, matching almond eyes and a mouth that naturally sits in an upturned, playful smile. As she sits on her living room sofa nine months after her loss, her freshly bitten fingernails offer a clue to the anxiety that often overwhelms her.
Judith asked that NBC News not use her full name, fearing a backlash from the trolls, paid-per-click bloggers and well-meaning health advocates who congregate in online spaces to debate birth choices. Judith is terrified they’ll say the things she already tells herself in the darkest moments.
“I can’t take any more guilt,” she said.
It’s impossible to know whether Judith’s baby would be alive if she had induced at 42 weeks or scheduled a cesarean section or made any choices other than the ones she did. The hospital didn’t perform an autopsy, and doctors couldn’t explain exactly why her baby’s heart stopped beating. Even so, Judith has spent every day since then replaying different scenarios, imagining a better outcome and asking herself just how she got here.
As well as she can figure, it started with the podcasts.
Judith worked at a flower shop. The daily drive was an hour outside of town, time she filled by listening to podcasts. When she got pregnant, she devoured episodes of “The Birth Hour” and “Indie Birth,” popular programs on which women shared their childbirth stories, which ranged from hospital to home births. But it was the “Free Birth Podcast” that really spoke to Judith.
Billed as “a supportive space for people who are learning, exploring and celebrating their autonomous choices in childbirth,” the podcast features Emilee Saldaya, 35, a Los Angeles freebirth advocate and founder of the Free Birth Society. The group has 46,000 followers on Instagram, and its podcast hit a million downloads last year.
On the podcast, Saldaya interviews mothers about their freebirth stories. These women reminded Judith of herself; they were college educated, spiritual, creative types who spoke about their births in powerful, radical terms: as euphoric events that happened in bathtubs, in nature or in their own beds, surrounded by their partners and family. Women in these podcasts weren’t listening to doctors but to their bodies. They weren’t lying on their backs waiting for someone to pull a baby from them but bringing their babies into the world with their own two hands.
Judith tore through some 70 episodes. She relistened to her favorites, one of which featured a woman who had given birth by candlelight in an off-the-grid yurt in the California mountains with only her husband and a dog she called her “midwolf.”
While she listened, Judith would daydream, imagining herself as a future guest on the podcast.
“I became obsessed,” Judith said. “I would just wonder, ‘What's my story going to be like?’ and think, ‘I want my story to be as badass as their stories.’”
The podcasts opened with advertisements for the Free Birth Society’s paid services — online courses and private consultations. Wanting to be prepared, Judith paid $299 for the group’s 10-module video guide on how to freebirth babies at home. The course paints expectant mothers as warriors — and experts, doctors and midwives as the enemy.
“Birth is not a medical event but a spontaneous function of biology,” Free Birth Society instructor Yolande Norris-Clark says in the welcome video. It isn’t luck, Norris-Clark, an artist and mother of eight in the Canadian province of New Brunswick, breathily offers, but education, mindset and love of your baby, that hold the keys to successful freebirthing.
Neither Saldaya nor Norris-Clark appear to have medical experience or expertise. That is, of course, the point. (Saldaya and Norris-Clark did not respond to requests for comment.)
But the sweeping refusal to accept any outside care during birth comes with risk, said Dr. Lawrence Leeman, co-medical director of the Mother-Baby Unit at the University of New Mexico Hospital.
“It’s delicate,” Leeman said. “You’re balancing maternal autonomy about birth. On the other hand, we also know that there are serious things that happen in pregnancy and labor that can be identified and bad outcomes prevented by having a skilled person who can recognize if things go wrong and provide care.”
Judith had already connected doctors to vulnerable times when she had been put under anesthesia as a child, when she sat through cold gynecological exams as a teen and when a doctor shrugged off her inner ear pain in college.
“Just calculating all the experiences I’ve had with doctors,” Judith said, “I never felt heard. I never felt listened to.”
Judith said the podcasts fanned her unease with doctors and medicine into a hot distrust, a common refrain in the freebirth community, in which hospital births are largely spoken about as traumatic experiences — harried medical teams rushing, poking, strapping women down to beds and pumping them full of drugs that confuse the mind, strangle the hormones responsible for love and push them into procedures that they didn’t feel they needed. Terms like “industrial obstetric tyranny” and “rape culture” are often used.
While the ideas espoused by freebirthers may be radical, their ideology is rooted in legitimate concerns.
A woman in America today is 50 percent more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth than her mother was. While many of these deaths are preventable and have more to do with access than improper medical care, the statistic itself can lead women to doubt medical institutions. Meanwhile, one-third of U.S. women give birth by C-section, a rate experts have called alarming for a procedure that can save lives but also comes with increased health risks to mothers and babies.
And 1 in 6 women reported mistreatment — verbal abuse, threats, ignored pleas for help, violations of physical privacy and physical abuse — by health care providers during pregnancy and childbirth, according to a survey published last year in the journal Reproductive Health. Women who gave birth in hospitals were more than five times more likely to report mistreatment than those who gave birth at home.
A different survey, conducted by the Washington advocacy group National Partnership for Women & Families, found that in 2002, 45 percent of mothers surveyed agreed that "giving birth is a natural process that should not be interfered with unless absolutely medically necessary.” By 2018, 74 percent of new mothers said they agreed.
“Mothers who home birth think it's safer than a hospital,” said Dr. Eugene Declercq, a professor of community health sciences at Boston University School of Public Health. (While the question of safety and risk from planned home births versus hospital births is the subject of intense professional and online debate, the evidence to support both sides is limited, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Home births attended by midwives are rare — accounting for less than 1 percent of all births — and freebirth is too rare a phenomenon to study.)
“Women want the freedom to make choices without being pressured into interventions they may not want or practices they don't feel are appropriate,” Declercq said.
“Obviously, home birth folks have more control: The providers are coming into their home,” Declercq said. “The ultimate expression of that would be: ‘No one's coming into my home.’”
‘I brainwashed myself with the internet’
As Judith approached her 40-week due date, she turned to the Free Birth Society course’s episode on “long pregnancies” for strength.
In the video, Norris-Clark warns against induction, calling any procedure to bring on labor an “eviction from the womb.” Norris-Clark says she went far past the standard 40 weeks of gestation for all of her births, one of them to almost 43 weeks.
While she addresses the concern of stillbirth, calling it the “elephant in the room,” Norris-Clark quickly moves on and says the idea that “babies must be born before 42 weeks is nonsense.”
“Babies come out,” Norris-Clark says. “Babies always come out.”
Except sometimes they don’t.
In November 2018, the Free Birth Society closed its 6,000-member Facebook group in reaction to a blogger who wrote several posts about a member who had lost her baby after six grueling days of labor in her desert home. The story went viral when it was picked up as a feature in The Daily Beast. In her last post to the group, Saldaya doubled down on her mission. “This is not the time to run, hide or be silenced,” Saldaya wrote. “It is a time to become more steadfast, more powerful and more protected in this radical work of healing the deepest wounds on this earth.”
The closing of the Free Birth Society’s Facebook group had no effect on Judith’s confidence; she didn’t recall seeing the news reports.
But as the days crept by, her confidence cracked. To quiet her small but growing concern, Judith had her amniotic fluid checked at a local hospital. Everything looked well enough, but a doctor urged her to schedule an induction. She made an appointment but canceled it the next day. Judith also checked in with a local midwifery collective but ignored the gentle, constant advice that she induce.
Judith found a second opinion on Facebook. Although the Free Birth Society’s Facebook page had closed, several other private freebirth Facebook groups remained that provided safe spaces for Judith to talk about her plans. Judith waded into groups like “Unassisted Pregnancy & Childbirth” and “Home Birth Assisted & Unassisted Uncensored” as they popped up in her recommended sidebar.
Searching the hashtag #43weekspregnant led her to a Facebook group called “Ten Month Mamas,” made up of a few hundred women who knew what she was going through. Judith joined.
“43+1 today, politely declining hospital induction. They think I’m crazy,” Judith posted in Ten Month Mamas in January 2019, along with a list of the midwives’ concerns, including the baby’s larger size, her decreasing amniotic fluid and the integrity of her placenta, the organ that carries oxygen and nutrients from mother to baby. “I really feel like this baby wants a home birth too but we are definitely being tested. What would you mamas do?”
The comments rolled in, more than 50 per post.
“Trust your body.”
“Your baby isn’t ready to come out!”
“I would do exactly what you’re doing!”
“Keep going mumma, listen to your baby and your instincts — you got this.”
With the ding of each new comment came a wave of fresh relief. The last two weeks of her pregnancy, Judith was posting in multiple groups and reading the comments “obsessively,” she now recalls. She replied to each new one and took screenshots of those from moms with stories of going past 43 weeks.
“OK, if I'm feeling sh---y, I can just read this,” she thought.
No one in Judith’s groups encouraged her to heed the midwives’ advice, and for good reason: That kind of reaction was either generally discouraged or expressly against the rules.
“No assistance talk” was the first rule of “Unassisted Pregnancy & Childbirth,” which expressly forbade its 4,600 members from suggesting that another member go to a doctor or a midwife.
“This means we don't want to hear about the tests your midwife wants you to take, or how your OB thinks baby is breech or ‘too big’ or whatever other s--- they say. Just don't. This is not the place,” the rules continued. “No induction discussion. We do not advocate for induction of any kind, as no induction is natural.”
The rules were reassuring to Judith.
“Women can get advice on whether to see a doctor anywhere else, but they go to that space specifically, to not get bombarded with negative comments,” Judith said. “You don't want to fill your head with anything that you don't want.”
Social media has come under fire in recent years for amplifying extreme views and employing algorithms that connect users to these potentially dangerous echo chambers. Although much of this criticism has focused on political extremism, experts and lawmakers have also pointed to extremism fueled by health misinformation as a threat to individuals and the public health at large.
“Things can get a little dicey,” said Kolina Koltai, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, who studies the social media behavior of alternative health communities. “Not to demonize all of the groups, but when women start diagnosing and crowdsourcing health-related issues, they can end up getting bad medical advice that can be pretty dangerous.
“We’re in this weird time, like a new digital Wild, Wild West,” Koltai said.
Judith’s dependence on the internet and social media through pregnancy isn’t uncommon; pregnant women and mothers of young babies were among the earliest and most active internet adopters.
“First-time moms are experiencing a sense of loneliness and isolation and coping with a lack of experiential knowledge that they had a generation ago,” said Deborah Lupton, a digital sociologist and professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia.
For Judith — newly married and living far from family and most of her friends — the online birth community stepped in to fill the gap. And she veered toward the wildest, the most radical content, seeking out those who would validate her choices. She blocked mainstream birth accounts on Instagram and Facebook and read only testimonials that promoted unassisted birth. Every day, she felt more radical and resolved to freebirth alone, “no matter what.”
“I think I brainwashed myself with the internet.”
In the end, Judith accepted the medical assistance she had worked so hard to avoid: Pitocin to hurry labor, medicine for nausea, an epidural for the pain. Judith cried until she couldn’t anymore. Her husband cried beside her.
For the next 10 or so hours, as she waited for her labor to progress, Judith lay in her hospital bed, getting sick, watching TV and pushing the button that released doses of pain medication. At one point, her mind turned to the Facebook groups. The women would be wondering about her, she thought, and she could use their support right now.
“I have some very bad news,” she began her post. “We lost our baby in labor.”
Judith told her birth story: how her baby, still inside her, had died and how she blamed herself.
“Not even telling my family until we deliver, say goodbye, and get out of here,” she wrote. Then, woozy from drugs and numbed by shock, she fell asleep.
When a nurse woke Judith and told her it was time to push, she pushed. The doctor reached into Judith’s body to help guide the baby out, and he was born. He weighed 10 pounds, with a shock of blond hair.
Judith held her baby on her chest for a long time. He was so heavy in her arms, she thought, not like what a newborn baby was supposed to feel like. Judith kissed him and hugged him and cried. In the photos she took with her phone, Judith’s baby looks chubby and healthy. Perfect, she thought.
“I’m so, so sorry,” she told him over and over. And after several hours, Judith and her husband said goodbye.
As Judith mourned, women from all over the world offered condolences in her Facebook groups. But not everyone was there to give support. For at least one member, Judith was to be an example.
Within hours of Judith’s stillbirth, a blogger in the anti-home birth constellation published an article about it without reaching out to her. It was clear from the post, which included screenshots but blacked out Judith’s name, that one of her Facebook groups had been infiltrated by an opponent of the freebirth movement, someone who had seen Judith’s tragedy unfold and leaked photos of her chats.
With that betrayal, Judith left all of her pregnancy Facebook groups. Knowing that it was being spied on, the administrator of Ten Month Mamas shuttered the group, explaining in a final post that what had once been an “intimate and wonderful” group was no longer "a safe place for parents to share.”
But other freebirth and long-gestation groups Judith belonged to remain. One private group with 2,000 members still uses Judith’s pregnant belly — an underwater photograph taken at 42 weeks — as its banner image.
When she returned home from the hospital, Judith stayed offline and inside, afraid to run into anyone who might ask about her baby.
After a few months, Judith and her husband decided they couldn’t go on grieving in their small town and moved 1,200 miles to a state where she had never been and where no one knew about the baby. They found a house to rent on a ranch, where they help feed and take care of the horses.
“It’s a nice place to hide,” Judith said.
Judith takes walks, feeds the horses and writes — poems and letters that she doesn’t share with anyone. Art helps, too. She makes dream catchers from wood and string, as well as jewelry out of polished stones. She’s started to sell her creations at local art fairs.
On Facebook, stillbirth and grieving mother support groups have replaced her freebirth communities. And although Judith never got to share one of the dreamy birth tales offered up by freebirth businesses and blogs, she’s hoping that it’s not too late for another pregnant woman to gain something from hearing her story now.
“Sad stories aren’t out there nearly as much,” Judith said. “Maybe my extreme story could help somebody.”