Care as Empowerment

Oral histories show path to safe maternal care for all in new book by Columbia Nursing’s Professor Dohrn

Midwives and future midwives from New York City and beyond gathered with members of the Columbia Nursing community on December 11, 2023, to celebrate a new book by Professor Jennifer Dohrn, DNP, about the Childbearing Center of Morris Heights (Morris Heights Health Center/Women’s Health and Birthing Pavilion)—the first (and to date the only) freestanding birthing center in the South Bronx. Though the center closed its services for birthing in 2012, its impact will endure thanks to Dohrn’s book. 

Titled Mothers, Midwives and Reimagining Birth in the South Bronx: Breathe, Now Push, the book was published in November 2023 by McMillan/Springer as part of its Palgrave Studies in Oral History series. It features oral histories by 12 women who delivered their babies at the center, many of whom were on hand at the event. The book describes how Dohrn and a team of midwives worked with the community to establish the center, which opened in 1988 and made birthing safe for thousands of women until its closing 24 years later. 

Midwifery DNP student Keisha Paul, MS ’23, and midwife Sarah Elizabeth, DNP ’23, opened the event by reading a scene from the book that describes a woman in labor at the center, with her partner and her mother; the joyful moment of the baby’s birth; and the peace and comfort experienced by the new family as they rested after the delivery.  

A panel discussion about the current maternal health crisis globally and within the US followed. The conversation included Dohrn; Assistant Professor Rebekah Ruppe, DNP, the director of Columbia Nursing’s Midwifery Program; and Assistant Professor Ashley Graham-Perel, EdD, the interim director of Columbia Nursing’s Office of Diversity and Cultural Affairs. The panelists shared their perspectives on the United States’ dismal maternal mortality statistics—noting the crisis’s roots in the racialization of health care, a product of the country’s history of enslavement and a central cause of Black women dying at three times the rates of white women, as well as the potential of midwife-led care to help heal the generational trauma that haunts pregnancy and childbirth for many women. 

“Birth is just an amazing time because you can make great leaps when it’s recognized what’s needed, when you feel empowered, and the pain that you’ve experienced is acknowledged,” Dohrn said.  

She quoted from a few of the oral histories to make it clear that the birthing center was different from hospitals where women didn’t feel safe, listened to, or seen:  

It truly empowered the women it served to claim agency and take ownership of their own birthing and parenting journey. As a woman of color from a low-income, working-class background, I felt I belonged from the moment I walked in because it was filled with women that looked and sounded like me and because the midwives made me feel I belonged.

You just walked in as the woman that you are, whatever your experience. And you didn’t have to leave it at the door, you brought it with you.

Dohrn’s book ends with a call to action, which she read at the close of the panel:  

A close listening to the voices of these women provides repeated affirmation of what is needed to move from the current time when maternal health is not a basic right for all women to a new era of safe motherhood that is inclusive and equitable. What matters is loud and clear. Deconstructing racialization and inequity in maternity care matters. Environment matters. Culture matters. A voice in care and policy matters. Midwifery care matters. Growth and self-empowerment of women matters. So it is time to take a breath, get centered, and to push forward for justice.