Montgomery, Alabama – Over the past several weeks, an incredible thing has happened in Alabama. A group of people – mostly pregnant women and/or mothers of young children – have taken the State House by storm. Attention and progress that is usually reserved for high-paid lobbyists is being earned by the hard work of these pro-life, pro-family grassroots activists. This group, organized by the Alabama Birth Coalition, is pushing HB316, also known as The Childbirth Freedom Act – sponsored by Rep. Ken Johnson (R-D7) that would legalize and regulate certified professional midwives in the state.
Kaycee Cavender, a mother and the President of the Alabama Birth Coalition, sums up the bill by explaining that “The Childbirth Freedom Act will establish a state board of midwifery in order to license and regulate Certified Professional Midwives to practice legally in Alabama.”
Currently, despite home births being legal, it is a criminal offense for a Certified Professional Midwife to practice anywhere in the state. Nurse Midwives are legal, but very few – and there are no birthing centers in the state. Alabama has one of the worst infant mortality rates in the country, and only 17 of Alabama’s 54 rural counties have a hospital capable of delivering a baby. There are areas of the state where a pregnant mother in labor could potentially have to drive up to two hours to reach a care facility capable of helping them. This has created the phenomena known as “border births” – where a mother who does not wish to have their child in a hospital for financial, religious, or other reasons is forced to cross the border into a neighboring state to give birth. This puts additional logistical and financial strain on the family, and introduces additional risks.
It was initially difficult for this group – primarily stay-at-home-moms – to build any traction with their bill. Legislators didn’t take them seriously, and they didn’t have access to the resources or training of large lobbying organizations. They’ve attempted to push the bill in previous years with no success. But this year, they started organizing letter-writing and phone banking campaigns through a Facebook group, and landed an energetic sponsor in State Representative Ken Johnson. Combined with the pressure from the constituent letter-writing campaign, Representative Johnson was able to gain real traction with the bill, and started accumulating co-sponsors. Currently, the bill has 36 co-sponsors, including the Speaker of the House, Mac McCutcheon.
Unfortunately, as they gained momentum, they also gained attention. Midwife-assisted births have been proven to be just as safe as hospital births for non-high-risk pregnancies, but unfortunately for this group, they are also known to be much less expensive. This means that hospitals (and thus, medical lobbying associations) stand to lose significant amounts of money if the bill passes. The Medical Association of the State of Alabama (MASA), the Alabama Hospital Association, and the Alabama Nurses Association have all come out in opposition to this bill. Even more unfortunately for HB284 (the 2015 bill), it was assigned to the Health Subcommittee in the House. The Health Subcommittee is chaired by Representative April Weaver (R-49), a former Hospital executive and public affairs official that until very recently still sat on the board of a Hospital. Her husband, Dr. Darrell Weaver, currently serves as the Associate Medical Director for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama, which has a virtual monopoly on medical insurance in the state. Last year, the movement was killed unceremoniously by Representative Weaver when she refused to even allow a vote on the bill in committee after delaying the public hearing twice. In the short hearing that was allowed, lobbyists opposing the bill were consistently allowed to exceed their time limit, while the same limit was strictly enforced on the bill’s supporters.
At this point, context is important. How did someone with such a clear conflict of interest be appointed as Chair of such a powerful committee? As it turns out, she was appointed by former Speaker Mike Hubbard. Why is Hubbard no longer Speaker of the House? He is currently in jail. Among the many pay-for-play schemes he was convicted on, two stand out that are relevant to this situation. He was convicted of two felonies relating to his voting on legislation that benefited the American Pharmacy Cooperative, a medical organization that was paying Hubbard several thousand dollars a month in “consulting fees.” Specifically, it was discovered that he used his position as Speaker to affect the language in certain bills and to affect when they were voted on. Ultimately, he was convicted on 12 out of the 23 ethics charges issued by the grand jury.
With Representative Weaver, the cycle appears to be completing itself. Her family’s income comes primarily from organizations that have a vested financial interest in the defeat of the Childbirth Freedom Act. In fact, the “Alabama Medical PAC” included a shout out to her on their magazine, claiming that “Representative April Weaver is working for physicians” and that she “co-sponsored legislation amending the state’s chemical endangerment law to shield pregnant women and their doctors from prosecution for routine maternity care.” Yet she continues to serve as the Chair of the Health Committee, and continues to actively oppose this bill. Now, the above-mentioned organizations (MASA, etc.) have filed a competing, hostile bill – HB 344. This bill is a “poison pill” for the Childbirth Freedom Act – designed to defeat the movement while appearing publicly as a compromise. Primarily, this bill requires that all births take place in a “birth center,” none of which currently exist in Alabama, and for which no rules or regulations currently allow. This language is being pitched as addressing safety concerns, but is designed to kill the Childbirth Freedom Act. This bill is being backed by the medical lobbyists, and will soon be up for a vote in the Health Subcommittee, still chaired by April Weaver.
Fortunately for the Childbirth Freedom Act, Representative Johnson appears to have more political savvy than your average state legislator. He was able to get the Childbirth Freedom Act moved this year to the Boards, Agencies, and Commissions Subcommittee because the bill would create a new state board of midwifery. With Weaver’s opposition out of the way, the Childbirth Freedom Act is finally making progress – it came up for a hearing this week, and a vote is expected in the committee soon. With 37 bipartisan sponsors and cosponsors (including the Speaker), it will most likely cruise through the House as soon as it gets out of committee. The Senate may be another story.
But the drama isn’t over. This epic battle between corporate lobbyists and stay-at-home-moms has spilled over into another conflict. The House Majority Leader, Micky Hammon, recently resigned his position due to pressure from conservative and tea party Republicans after various personal and legal scandals started to surface. This past week, the GOP Caucus held a vote to replace him. Although caucus meetings are not matters of public record, The Resurgent has been informed by anonymous sources that the vote came down to two people – Representatives April Weaver and Nathaniel Ledbetter. Not only that, but the vote was decided in Ledbetter’s favor by a razor-thin margin. Weaver represented the establishment side of the caucus, while Ledbetter was backed by the minority (more conservative) anti-establishment side. According to these sources, one of the main points of contention that helped to sway several votes from Weaver to Ledbetter was frustration with how Weaver handled the midwifery bill. These legislators were hesitant to give her more influence over committee assignments and bill scheduling after witnessing such a blatant conflict of interest. While this issue may not have single-handedly decided the race, it certainly contributed to the outcome.
In other words, this scrappy group of pro-life activist moms had a measurable impact on the leadership choices of the Alabama House of Representatives.
This is how democracy is supposed to work. This nonpartisan group of volunteers have organized to support a cause that directly affects them, their children, their pocketbooks, and their health. By sheer force of will, they have created a formidable presence in the State House, getting the Speaker of the House on board with a bill that is strongly opposed by several powerful lobbying organizations. As Samuel Adams once said, “It does not take a majority to prevail… but rather an irate, tireless minority, keen on setting brushfires of freedom in the minds of men.” Or women, as the case may be. They are fighting for more freedom and improved health of unborn and young children. They are kicking butt, and taking names.
To the fine women of the Alabama Birth Coalition, Representative Ken Johnson, and their grassroots allies – good luck, and Godspeed.