Monday, July 22, 2024

Merline Sylvain-Williams, a doula, advocates for birth centers at a rally Wednesday in Harvard Square. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Closed doors at the Cambridge Birth Center were not why a couple of hundred protesters rallied Wednesday in Harvard Square, trying to yell loud enough so health executives could hear them.

In fact, the Cambridge Health Alliance plans to reopen its birth center soon, organizers said. Though it was just Sept. 19 that the City Council voted unanimously to urge CHA to reopen and repair its relationship with the community, now it’s the exemplar that midwives, parents and state legislators want Beth Israel Lahey Health to follow for its own North Shore Birth Center in Beverly.

The Cambridge Birth Center closed early in the Covid pandemic but failed to reopen with other businesses as the emergency eased. Councillor Marc McGovern, whose two oldest children were born with the help of midwives, called the closing “yet another example of the Cambridge Health Alliance moving forward with something they had to know was going to be incredibly controversial in our community and not informing the council before it got out.”

The council not only supports the existing birth centers, but wants more in Cambridge, councillor Patty Nolan said in her policy order.

“I can’t understate the importance of this for the health of people giving birth,” Nolan said. “It is something we need to be in the forefront of.”

Participants at the Wednesday rally show a banner to passing traffic in Harvard Square. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Just 10 days later, it was common knowledge at the rally that the Birth Center was reopening – which will make it the only free-standing, midwifery-led center in Eastern Massachusetts, a tradeoff with Beverly that protesters called a scandal in a state that prides itself on its health care. (One sign at the rally proclaimed “Vulva la Revolución.”)

A center is expected to open in Roxbury next year, but that “doesn’t make up for a loss on the North Shore,” said Emily Anesta, president of the Bay State Birth Coalition.

Though there are 400 birth centers in the United States, Massachusetts has only one open reliably, in Northampton, according to the nonprofit American Association of Birth Centers.

Profit motive seen

The North Shore Birth Center has provided maternity care and women’s health services to the region for more than 40 years, supporting more than 10,000 births, rally organizers said. The decision by Beth Israel Lahey to close it overturned promises it made during a 2019 merger and was based on “misogyny, racism and greed,” organizers said.

“You can make more money [offering a birth] in a hospital than in a birth center,” said Katie Murphy, president of the Massachusetts Nurses Association, during a rally speech. The savings per birth estimated by another speaker: $2,000.

Beth Israel Lahey, a nonprofit that has its offices on University Road in Harvard Square, has said a lack of midwives forced it to close its birth center, and executives continued to “work in partnership with elected officials and our local community to further discuss the complex challenges associated with safely operating the NSBC,” said Tom Sands, president of Beverly Hospital, in a release to media last month.

A statement Thursday from Beth Israel Lahey Health held firm on the closing of the free-standing center, saying it was working “collaboratively with elected officials and members of the community to listen [and] understand the elements of birthing services that are most important to them,” but to the goal of “midwife assisted-births in a hospital setting.”

Murphy said the health care system’s inability to staff the center was the result of it offering compensation 25 percent below the market standard. When the union offered to work with Beth Israel, it instead said it would close the center, then promised to take 90 days to reconsider. Now it was going back on the promise, Murphy said, even as a new merger with Exeter Hospital was being negotiated. Peggy Wang, a member of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, spoke Wednesday to call the shutdown “blatant union-busting.”

Legislators show support

In addition to speakers including Judy Norsigian of Our Bodies Ourselves, there were at least three legislators in the crowd: local state Rep. Steve Owens, incoming Salem state Rep. Manny Cruz and Topsfield state Rep. Jamie Belsito. In dueling stories of birth experiences, Cruz described the heart-filling pleasure of working with a midwife who could advocate for him and his wife even as they had to turn to hospital care after seeing through most of their process at the Beverly birth center; Belsito described giving birth in a hospital as “traumatic,” leading to postpartum depression and her forming the Maternal Mental Health Leadership Alliance.

“I created a movement because vaginas need voices too,” Belsito told the Harvard Square crowd with a brief laugh.

In describing the results of a state report that endorses birthing centers and calls for increasing capacity for them, Belsito said she was “perplexed” by a Beth Israel Lahey decision that was “detached from reality.” She had spoken that day about the issue with the secretary of the state, she said, while Cruz said Beth Israel Lahey had asked to meet with him.

Merline Sylvain-Williams, a Cantabrigian and birth and postpartum doula, attended the rally with her children – delivered with the help of a midwife she’d first met as a student at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School – and a bright pink sign saying “Cambridge can save their health center. Why can’t you, BILH?”

“We have the data, Beth Israel,” she told fellow protesters, rattling off figures about maternal health and infant mortality that improved with the kind of care provided in Cambridge and Beverly. “Why do we have to fight to save a birth center?”

A request for information was sent late Wednesday to Cambridge Health Alliance.

This post was updated Sept. 29, 2022, with updated comment from Beth Israel Lahey Health.