On April 18, 2000, 10-year-old Candace Newmaker was killed in a staged rebirthing session. In the 70 minute videotaped session, loosely based on rebirthing and attachment therapy, the facilitators wrapped Candace in a twisted blanket, applied pressure to her body to simulate contractions, and urged her to come out to her adoptive mother. An unwilling participant in the procedure, she resisted with many phrases including "I can't do it," "I can't breathe," and "I'm going to throw up."
The facilitators countered with statements such as "You're a quitter" and "If you don't have the
courage to live, it's easier to die." She eventually became still and quiet for the
last 20 minutes, and was eventually unwrapped - unconscious, not breathing, and without a pulse. Candace was airlifted to hospital and the next morning pronounced dead of asphyxiation.
On April 17, 2001, Governor Bill Owens of Colorado signed a bill into law that prohibits the use of "rebirthing" techniques by mental health professionals. Candace's adoptive mother and the therapists involved are facing criminal charges of varying degrees up to a maximum of 48 years in prison. A CNN report states that Owens has indicated that "Therapists who use the rebirthing technique, which is supposed to simulate the birth process, would be subject to criminal penalties."
This horror for Candace is a tragedy on many fronts. Any argument against the legislation will be seen as a callous and unfeeling insult to Candace's death in particular, and children's rights in general. To me, it all boils down to one thing - the danger of coercion and neglect. It was parental coercion and neglect that created the problems in Candace, and it was the application of coercion and neglect "for her own good" that killed her.
If a patient dies from malpractice on the operating table, we do not ban surgery. If a team of inept and insensitive adults coerced a little girl, neglected her calls for help, and then suffocated her, there is no need to ban all birth-process work. They killed her, and there are laws for that.
Techniques resembling rebirthing are sometimes used as a part of primal process work. But unlike the terrible approach of Candace's facilitators, the primal ethic is about respecting the needs of people, whether they are a fetus, a newborn, a 10-year-old, or an adult. In the IPA, clients control their process by various means including the phrase "Stop, I mean it!" If Candace had been with any IPA therapists or peer workers I know, she would have been let out of the blanket as soon as she protested.
Although I am not an advocate of contrived processes like rebirthing, I am concerned for the therapists and facilitators who handle "birth work" in their primal practice. If you are in Colorado, and your client's actions on the mat indicate a birth process, what will you do?
What if, at the end of a session of writhing and twisting, your client tells you they were having birth feelings? Will their family lay charges when they find out? Candace is gone, and now the type of deep feeling work that can prevent the pain that she suffered is in danger.
Which legislature will act next?
This article originally appeared in the Summer, 2001, International Primal Assn. Newsletter.