A Midwife Comes Out of the Shadows
Story of a Utah Fundamentalist Published
“We weren’t very smart in those days and we were too obedient,” said Laurine Kingston recently in an interview at KCPW Radio in Salt Lake City. Kingston is stepping into the spotlight as a former member of the secretive fundamentalist Kingston sect. She has been helped in telling her story by historian Victoria D Burgess, author of The Midwife: A Biography of Laurine Ekstrom Kingston, recently published by Signature Books of Salt Lake City.
The book’s title is a reference to Kingston’s profession, which began in the 1950s at a time when midwifery had fallen into disrepute. Women like Kingston had to hide from the police as they aided mothers through natural childbirth. Gaining notoriety in some circles, Kingston grew to become one of the most interesting midwives ever to practice, with enough colorful stories of her own to match her nineteenth-century pioneer predecessors.
Laurine Ekstrom was raised in the Davis County Cooperative Society known as “the Kingstons,” a Mormon splinter group established in the 1930s by Marxist-polygamists. Whatever else might be said of the group, they were charitable to their own members and to others in need. Laurine’s childhood home was open to anyone requiring hospice or birthing care. In those days fundamentalist women could not easily go to a hospital to deliver a baby for fear of discovery. Most fundamentalists lived more or less off the grid.
But when a baby was due, a well-known woman with locks of red hair and fists full of determination would arrive on the scene. She was not, like most polygamous women, destined to live her life in shadows as a stay-at-home fundamentalist. Overcoming objections from the sect, she obtained permission to attend college, where she earned a license in practical nursing, then became employed at LDS Hospital. After work, she aided the polygamist prophet Rulon Allred, a naturopath obstetrician from another sect, who used Laurine’s parents’ home as a birthing center. Allred was later murdered by followers of rival-prophet Ervil Labaron.
Laurine’s career began when she stepped in to help a woman deliver her child after Allred had become detained. She learned, through this experience, that she had a healing touch, which she interpreted as a gift from God. Since that time, she has midwifed some 3,000 births. For one family, she assisted three generations of mothers. She was often assisted in her home by Rowena, Laurine’s sister and sister-wife, and who, ironically, later founded a group called Tapestry against Polygamy. Despite Rowena’s defection from polygamy as a religious construct, the family continues to live in two houses on the same property in Taylorsville, Utah.
During the twentieth century, midwives struggled to develop a positive rapport with doctors and hospital administrators. On one occasion during the 1960s, Laurine helped a mother who had been abused as a youth. The young woman chose home birth for the security of having a midwife present. When complications arose, Laurine contacted the hospital and attempted to reason with the admissions coordinator to honor the mother’s wish to have a female obstetrician. When Laurine and the mother arrived at the hospital, they were met by an all-male staff.
“What an interesting combination of fundamentalism and feminism Laurine is,” writes Burgess. The midwife even became pro-choice based on her experiences and observations with pregnant women. She retains her beliefs in fundamentalist theology, but now rejects the concept of infallibility that she once considered a characteristic of the Kingston prophet. Nor does she see the need for him to attend each birth as is the custom in that sect. She now believes this to be an intrusion on a woman’s privacy.
In 2005 the Utah legislature legalized lay midwifery, and a Certified Nurse-Midwife program is offered at the University of Utah; such developments indicate how much the world has changed since the 1950s—an obvious thaw in the formerly chilly relationship between doctors and midwives. Kingston believes that whether midwives are trained in medical schools or as apprentices to other women obstetricians, they “work together or in tandem” and produce the best results. Laurine believes “childbirth is a profound spiritual experience,” and as such, it requires more than medical care. It is an event to be experienced by fully conscious mothers rather than by those barely present through reliance on epidurals and other drugs. From the standpoint of a midwife, the mother should deliver her own baby with minimum interference from others. Childbirth is a natural phenomenon and not a disorder that needs surgery.
Through interviews, Kingston detailed to Burgess much of what she witnessed in thousands of Utah homes—many inhabited by fundamentalists, while others were the abodes of people adhering to the “hippy, natural-food, and anti-industrial” trends of the 1960s. Her fly-on-the-wall observations are telling; her evolution from follower to leader in her field, along with a gradual acceptance of those of other faiths and worldviews, makes her story all the more interesting.