By Andrew D. Zimbelman / for NBC News
Feb. 21, 2020
By February 2019, Judith had become unbearably anxious. The 28-year-old Pacific coast native’s due date had come and gone. Just two days shy of 45 weeks pregnant, her belly was stretched so far that it shined, her body was swollen, and nearly everything — from her toes to her hair — ached.
For women who haven’t gone into labor by 42 weeks, just about every medical and birth professional recommends induction — a jump-start to labor from medicines that ripen the cervix or contract the uterus. But Judith, an artist and freethinker who believes in “all that hippy jazz,” had a different kind of birth plan — one that dismissed medical recommendations and relied on nature and intuition, that rejected a sterile hospital for a warm pool in her own home and that avoided doctors and midwives. Instead, Judith wanted to be with only her husband and her closest friend, a plan known as freebirth, or unassisted birth, by the tiny subculture of women who practice it.
Judith couldn’t tell many people about that plan — her husband was supportive, but most of her other family and friends would understandably worry. Instead, Judith, who asked that her full name not be published, spent the last several months of her pregnancy immersed in online spaces where women celebrated her decision and offered support and tips. Private Facebook groups, Instagram accounts, podcasts and online courses had taught Judith everything she thought she needed to know about how her baby would come into the world.
There were doubts — sprouted from seeds planted by real-life friends who knew about her plan and doctors whom Judith had to see to sign up for state insurance benefits. But Judith had fortified herself against the creeping unease with the stories she read online from freebirthing mothers and the real-time support she received on Facebook. With a little help from algorithms that nudged increasingly questionable information and sources her way, Judith had become a part of the internet’s most extreme pregnancy communities.