Humanized Birth Pioneers: 30 Years of Simkin

Penny Simkin with Sheila Kitzinger

The Simkin Center for Allied Birth Vocations at Bastyr University begins the celebration of its 30th birthday in 2018! A department in Bastyr's School of Natural Health Arts and Sciences, the Simkin Center prepares and educates birth and postpartum doulas, childbirth and lactation educators and other birth professionals with an emphasis on advancing humane and equitable care for childbearing families.

After 30 years of education and advancement, we pay homage to our history, the shoulders of those on which we stand, as well as explore stories of and inspiration from Simkin Center emerging leaders in the birth professions.

Sheila Kitzinger (1929-2015) was a renowned British social anthropologist, childbirth educator and author. Sheila was often described as the “high priestess of natural childbirth” and was “unashamed…about being a feminist social revolutionary.” (The Gaurdian, April 12, 2015). Penny Simkin is a physical therapist, childbirth educator, doula and author, as well as the namesake of the Simkin Center. Penny serves as faculty of the Center, and is often called the “mother of the modern doula movement” and received Bastyr’s Mission Award in 2015. Penny celebrates 50 years in the field this year.

The origins of the Simkin Center’s unique education and advocacy program sprouted from the seeds of a powerful movement in North America and Europe in the 1960s and ‘70s in opposition to the medicalization and common dehumanizing birth practices in hospitals.

Care during birth in the mid-20th century was often inhumane, unsafe and disempowering. Women in labor were left alone, restrained in bed on their backs, given enemas, shaved and subjected to routine episiotomy and operative delivery. Mothers, partners and families, along with emerging childbirth advocacy organizations, began to demand better care, emotional support and respect in the birthing room. These demands and organizing eventually lead to the development of a specialized role for labor support, a provider with no other role than to give emotional and psychological support, and comfort during birth. The Simkin Center Birth Doula Skills Workshop, developed and taught by Penny Simkin, started in 1988 is still going strong at Bastyr University with over 8,000 graduates to date.

Sheila Kitzinger and Penny Simkin have been vastly influential voices in the movement to center the needs of women, mothers and families during birth, an intensely personal, social and emotional experience in families’ lives. They continue to inspire us today.

 By Annie Kennedy, MA Candidate and Director, Simkin Center at Bastyr University