Date: July 1st, 2007
Innovative, determined and passionate are words that best describe Ruth Lubic, who at age 80, continues to be an outspoken advocate for women and families, particularly the poor. A nurse-midwife for 45 years, she is recognized as a national leader in promoting an intimate, "low tech, high touch" approach to childbirth.
Lubic’s altruism and her belief in the importance of a positive birthing process were shaped by her own experiences. Growing up in a small town in Pennsylvania during the Depression, she saw her father, a pharmacist, give medicine to the needy and her mother sell her diamond ring to help others. She became a registered nurse, married and moved to New York City. In 1959, she gave birth to her son. Lubic’s positive childbirth experience, which included having her husband involved (unheard of at that time), sparked her interest in working in maternity care.
"It was a close emotional experience between all three of us and the most important thing that has ever happened in my life," she said. At the suggestion of her obstetrician, she enrolled in the country’s first midwifery school. After graduating in 1962, she worked as a parent educator because no one would hire her as a midwife, given many doctors’ opinion that midwives were unqualified.
Frustrated that she couldn’t use her midwifery skills, Lubic returned to graduate school to study anthropology. But by the mid-1970s, many women were disenchanted with childbirth in hospitals and were looking for other options. This prompted Lubic to open the country’s first state-licensed birthing center in 1975 in Manhattan’s affluent East Side. Despite many challenges and obstacles, including having to file a lawsuit to receive payment from Medicaid for their services, the center prevailed and thrived. Next, Lubic opened the Morris Heights Childbearing Center in the South Bronx, one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City. She believed that poor women in particular would benefit from the personal attention that midwives provide.
She went on to help establish more than 200 freestanding birth centers in and beyond the United States. As co-founder and president of the National Association of Childbearing Centers in 1983, Lubic guided the association’s mission of encouraging the development of well-managed, accredited birth centers nationwide.
In 1993 Lubic received a MacArthur Foundation "genius award" which included a $375,000 stipend to use as she wished. She took her MacArthur money and headed to the nation’s capital, where the infant mortality rate was double the national average.
By 2000 Lubic had raised enough additional funds to turn an abandoned supermarket in Northeast Washington into the DC Developing Families Center. It is the city's only independent birthing center that offers poor women health care, family support services and child care, as well as prenatal care and a homey place to deliver babies.
The facility's mothers now have half as many cesarean sections, preterm births, and low-birth-weight babies as those in the rest of the city. According to Lubic, although the center is saving the city's health care system more than $1 million per year, she is still struggling to keep the center afloat.
While funding is still an obstacle, so is the perception of midwives and birthing centers. "We suffer from the image of midwife as someone who is uneducated and so forth. The perception is that because we don’t have epidurals and narcotics, that there's no pain relief here," says Lubic. "But that’s not true. The pain relief is different; it’s in the form of human support."
Despite the many challenges that midwives face, Lubic sees a bright future. "I think that we are at a point where we could really make a lot of change, especially when it comes to serving low-income people and those who experience disparities."
In addition to a master’s degree in nursing and doctorate in education, Lubic has received five honorary doctorates and dozens of awards, including the American Public Health Association’s Martha May Eliot Award and the Institute of Medicine’s Lienhard Award. She was also named a Living Legend by the American Academy of Nursing.
Lubic shows no signs of slowing down. A grandmother of two, she and her husband, Bill, who continues to practice law, have a commuter marriage, and they alternate weekends between their New York and Washington homes. A relentless fundraiser and tireless advocate, she insists on maintaining a young outlook on life, saying, "As long as I can do something to help, I’ll keep doing it."
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