A vacant farmhouse in central Minnesota has become the state’s newest birth center. But its clientele isn’t the crowd you might expect.
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The farmhouse on county road 38 in Todd County seems an unlikely place to bring a child into the world. The floor is unfinished wood, its cardboard-colored panels swept bare and cold. Raw insulation bulges out from around the edges of the windows. An old corn-burning stove, like a prop from some historical reenactment, fills the room with heat. To give birth here is to eschew every formality of the delivery room. But women do just that. Lots of them. Since September 2010, more than 20 babies—at least two per month—have gulped their first breaths of air here. And yet the only nod to obstetrics is a tiny, marker-written sign posted above an oversized tub in the bathroom: “TEMP FOR WATER LABOR: 92°.”
Welcome to Alisha’s Care Center, Minnesota’s newest freestanding birth center. Situated on five acres of prairie, about an hour northwest of St. Cloud, it’s a place where pregnant women come to avoid the OB/GYN. Over the past five years, freestanding birth centers—homelike facilities, unattached to any hospital, where deliveries happen with little to no medical intervention, assisted not by doctors but by midwives and doulas—have enjoyed a surge of interest. To a new generation of moms, they are the organic co-ops of the maternity world, places where a natural phenomenon is treated naturally. Want a pesticide-free tomato? Hit the farmers’ market. Want a cesarean-free labor? Well, you might consider a birth center.
Only Alisha’s doesn’t cater to the Whole Foods crowd. The women that come here are not part of a progressive elite. They’re farm wives without health insurance. They’re Amish and Mennonite mothers, for whom a hospital birth represents an unthinkable break from cultural tradition. Of Minnesota’s three existing freestanding birth centers—the other two are both located in the Twin Cities—Alisha’s is the only one to serve an exclusively rural community.
As if to drive this point home, the facility’s founder, Amy Claseman, 33, is padding barefoot around the farmhouse. Fly swatter in hand, she’s stalking a few bugs that have infiltrated the front screen door. “It may not look like much,” she says, “but to people like us, this is very homey.”
Claseman, a trained doula and birthing assistant, has spent her whole life in Eagle Bend, Minnesota. When she speaks, her voice comes soft and meek. She shows off one of the farmhouse’s two birthing areas. It’s a teeny country bedroom, a crib nestled in one corner, a single twin bed pressed into the other. The painted butterflies on the wall, Claseman explains, are in memory of her sister Alisha, the birth center’s namesake, who passed away in a car accident seven years ago. The last Mother’s Day gift Alisha ever gave to their mother, a heart-shaped ornament made of bent wicker branches, hangs above the bed.
Claseman says she established the birthing center specifically for Todd County’s Amish and Mennonite women, so they could have a safe, respectful environment in which to deliver. “A lot of women were asking for this,” she says. “Traditionally, they would just stay at home. But some of them have five or six kids. And their kids only go to school through eighth grade, so they’re teenagers. The Amish mothers wanted a private place where they could come, have their baby, and then go back home.”
In December 2009, after years of considering the idea, Claseman decided to do a test run. A pregnant woman in Eagle Bend, Gennifer Anderson, a beekeeper’s wife, wanted to avoid the hospital but wasn’t fully comfortable with a home birth. Her midwife suggested Claseman’s farmhouse. It was vacant, but usable enough. And it was only 12 miles from Long Prairie Memorial hospital, should any complication arise.
Anderson said she was game, so Claseman scrambled to fix the place up.
“When I walked in, it felt just like the house I grew up in,” recalls Anderson. “I told Amy, ‘I love it. I could be so happy here.’” The labor went smoothly. Just the ability to get up and move around, Anderson says, was liberating, especially compared to her first two births, which happened in a hospital. “Two hours after, I was up making a Tony’s frozen pizza in the kitchen there. I just felt like I had the freedom to do what I wanted to do.”
That was all Claseman needed to hear. The next summer, she launched an intense renovation, powered by a local carpenter and an army of Amish volunteers. By fall, she was ready for her grand opening, and on September 18, 2010, Alisha’s Care Center was born.
WHILE BIRTH CENTERS—freestanding or otherwise—have existed for decades out on the coasts in cities like New York and Seattle, the concept is new to Minnesota. Brand new, practically. Although hospitals in the state have offered in-house midwifery units since 1971—in fact, Long Prairie Memorial, in Todd County, was one of the first in Minnesota to offer a low-intervention option for birth—autonomous birthing centers, which enjoy complete independence from any OB/GYN department, really only came on the scene in 2010, after a landmark piece of legislation paved the way for licensure through the Minnesota Department of Health.
“Prior to that, it wasn’t illegal to operate as a birth center. It was just a-legal. There was no regulation around it,” says Amy Johnson-Grass, founder of Health Foundations Family Health and Birth Center, in St. Paul. Health Foundations was one of the first to open under the new rules, in February 2010. Since then, the door has been flung wide open—both legally and in terms of mainstream acceptance. For the first time, new birth centers have a framework for emerging as legitimate, state-approved facilities.
And pregnant moms are rejoicing.