Yolande Norris-Clark gazes placidly into the camera, speaking in her best ASMR voice, honey-colored bangs lying flat against her forehead as if stuck there by glue. She is, she says, with her five youngest children (she has eight) in the jungles of Costa Rica, where she’s recently relocated from her home in Canada. “This global reconstruction/ reconfiguration has nothing whatsoever to do with a flu-like illness and it just seems heavier and darker and more constrictive than I could’ve imagined. It’s not about a flu-like illness. It’s never been about a flu-like illness, and I really think the ‘Rona is irrelevant to all of this,” she says.
Norris-Clark is a self-described “writer, birth educator, freebirth coach, [and] iconoclast” who also goes by BauhausWife and is an instructor with the Free Birth Society, a group devoted to unassisted at-home childbirth. “Freebirth” is a term that refers to unassisted childbirth or pregnancy, without the guidance of a doctor, midwife, doula or other trained medical professional. It is distinct from home birth, a term used to describe someone having a baby outside a hospital, but usually with some sort of professional assistance. Home births only comprise a small percentage of the births every year, according to 2019 data; free births make up an even smaller number in the United States, or about a quarter of a percent — less than 10,000 births a year. But these numbers are on the rise thanks in large part to maternal concerns about Covid-19 in hospitals.
In November 2018, the Daily Beast published an investigation into the Free Birth Society after the death of a group member’s baby following a grueling six-day unassisted labor; earlier this year, NBC News also published an expose on the Free Birth Society. But increased media scrutiny has not staunched Norris-Clark’s platform. On Instagram, where she has 28,000 followers, she refers to herself as a “bringer of light,” a variation on “lightworker,” nomenclature that’s associated with QAnon, the baseless conspiracy theory about the existence of a Deep State child sex trafficking ring run by leftists; the term is meant to connote someone who brings light to darkness, or draws awareness to evils lurking in dark corners. She has also posted the #SaveTheChildren hashtag, an anti-trafficking hashtag that was coopted by the movement last summer. On YouTube, she posts lengthy tirades against the authoritarian “Deep State,” another QAnon term. Though she has denied her connection to the movement (“I know absolutely nothing about QAnon,” she said in a response to a Mother Jones article published in September), she has continued to push Q-connected conspiracies like Covid-19 denialism, such as the debunked claim that the novel coronavirus is no more lethal than the seasonal flu, as well as anti-mask content, poking fun at the efficacy of PPE in her Instagram stories.
Norris-Clark, who did not respond to a request for comment, is part of the recent trend toward “pastel QAnon,” or elements of QAnon infiltrating the female-driven health, wellness, and lifestyle space. So is Gigi Winters, who runs Informed Mothers, an anti-vaccine Instagram account, describes herself on Facebook as a “Truth Seeker. Mother. Informed Consent Advocate” who is “working to save our children from the satanic, child sacrificing piece of crap known as the pharmaceutical industry,” clear allusions to the QAnon conspiracy theory. “Nothing to see here, just mainstream media protecting pedophiles again,” she posted last August along with the hashtags #SaveOurChildren and #TomHanks, referring to the anti-trafficking campaign coopted by QAnon and the QAnon-driven conspiracy theory that Tom Hanks is a pedophile. (Winters also did not respond to request for comment.)
A term coined by researcher Marc-André Argentino to describe lifestyle and wellness influencers gravitating toward conspiracy theories during the pandemic, “pastel QAnon” influencers don’t necessarily overtly reference the QAnon conspiracy theory or allude to the more extremist aspects of the ideology, such as adrenochrome-harvesting; instead, they’re more likely to dabble in QAnon-associated terminology or hashtags, or post links to QAnon-related videos and documentaries.
In addition to the yoga and spirituality community, which is already grappling with an influx of QAnon believers, the natural-childbirth and natural-parenting communities are also starting to be infiltrated by conspiracy theorists, thanks to the convergence of various anti-vaxx and QAnon conspiracy theories that has taken place during the pandemic. To an extent, this intersection has been years in the making: while not everyone in the natural parenting community is anti-vaccine, “[there] definitely seems to be some overlap between the natural pregnancy and anti-vaxx communities,” says Zarine Khazarian, assistant editor at the Digital Forensic Research Lab.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of those heavily involved in the anti-vaccination community are women and mothers — one 2017 study found that 73 percent of active members on anti-vax Facebook pages were women, while another study found that nearly 83 percent of anti-vaccine comments in response to pro-vaccine messaging on Facebook were from women as well. This gender breakdown applies to those willing to get the forthcoming Covid-19 vaccine as well: as Rolling Stone previously reported, one Pew survey shows that 45 percent of women were “probably or definitely not” going to get the vaccine when it becomes available, as opposed to 33 percent of men who answered similarly.
During the pandemic, with anxiety raging and people stuck indoors, conspiracy theories in general have been on a steep incline, resulting in what Khazarian refers to as a “pollination” effect between various communities, such as QAnon and anti-vaccine activists. But women, particularly mothers, have proven to be exceptionally vulnerable. That’s due in part to the rise of the #SaveTheChildren movement last summer, the anti-child trafficking hashtag campaign that attracted many concerned mothers to the conspiracy fold, as Rolling Stone previously reported.
But it also goes further back than that, to the release of the anti-vaccine film Plandemic in the spring. The film, featuring notorious anti-vaxxer Dr. Judy Mikovits, alleged without any basis in fact that global elites were profiting off the coronavirus and a potential vaccine. Dr. Christiane Northrup — an alternative medicine practitioner and unmedicated childbirth advocate with 146,000 Instagram followers who has been instrumental in promoting Covid-19 conspiracy theories — regularly posts links to QAnon-related videos and has also done a video series called “The Great Awakening,” a nod to QAnon terminology. She posted a link to Plandemic before it was banned from Facebook for violating its misinformation policies. Plandemic also initially made the rounds on parenting groups before making its way into the mainstream, Khazarian says.
“It’s harder to combat anti-vaxx than before because of the way they are infiltrating home birthing communities, moms’ groups, neighborhood groups, all kinds of places you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find anti-vaccine sentiment, which makes it more difficult to police,” says Naomi Smith, a digital sociologist at Federation University of Australia who focuses on health, conspiracy theories, and the internet. “We thought [anti-vax sentiment] would be easier to deal with when Facebook and Twitter started cracking down. But it’s spread its roots in other communities that are not as easily identifiable as anti-vaccine on the surface and it gets to grow and proliferate largely undisturbed.”
Home birth groups have been especially vulnerable to such messaging, due to the “real sense of distrust” that home birth enthusiasts and conspiracy theorists tend to share. “Natural birth implies that the medical industry has problems — and it certainly does, there’s no doubt about it,” says Derek Beres, cohost of the podcast Conspirituality, which covers the rise of conspiracy theories in the wellness industry. “[But] there’s this idea that everything that has to do with medicalization of child birth is bad….it’s that distrust of the medical environment combined with a real lack of scientific understanding.”
Natural parenting influencers and Instagram-famous midwives and doulas like Norris-Clark hold particular sway. “If someone is a parent who has young kids and is concerned about the welfare of children, you’re more likely to trust what they say on a topic more than you’ll trust an expert,” says Dr. Timothy Caulfield, health policy research center director at the University of Alberta. “It pulls you further and further into the conspiracy pit.”
The documented rising number of home births due to mothers’ fears of contracting Covid-19 in hospitals may also be playing a role in the growth of anti-vaccine or conspiratorial messaging within natural or unassisted childbirth communities, Khazarian explains. Indeed, in unassisted childbirth groups on Facebook like Unassisted Unhindered Natural Home Birth, members and admins frequently share anti-vaccine memes or Covid-denialist content, such as a debunked post on the controversial alternative health website Mercola stating that vaccine aversion during Covid-19 was linked to lower infant mortality rates. (This claim is untrue, and Facebook fact-checked it.)
The language on such groups plants the seeds for distrust of the medical establishment. “Did you know since Covid, premature birth and infant death rates have PLUMMETED!?!? Less intervention from pushy doctors and less ‘well visit’ vaccinations for babies!!” the admin of the group wrote in August. “I am so happy to have you all here reclaiming your body and your births!”
Purveyors of anti-vaccine messaging have also been accused of targeting black and brown women specifically, who harbor justifiable mistrust toward the medical establishment due to higher maternal mortality rates than their white counterparts. This trend appears to be continuing during the pandemic: during the summer, for instance, a video featuring a black mother purportedly being injected by doctors against her will, with the caption “WHITE POLICE AND WHITE NURSES BRUTALLY INJECT A PREGNANT BLACK MOTHER,” went viral in many natural childbirth and alternative health groups, particularly after anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. posted it on Instagram. Such content “play[s] on the very real history of the black community being used as a site for experimentation without informed consent,” says Smith.
The end result of all of this fear-mongering about vaccines has been an increase in actual hesitancy surrounding the Covid-19 vaccine. According to a study from October, exposure to misinformation about Covid-19 and vaccines has a direct correlation to people’s willingness to take the Covid-19 vaccine. Caulfield says that thanks in part to anti-vaccine groups and influencers, “there’s absolutely no doubt misinformation is having an impact on public discourse about vaccines and on the growth of vaccination hesitancy.”
Facebook and Instagram are cracking down on anti-vaccine misinformation, with one of the biggest anti-vaccine groups on the platform dismantled last month; dismayed by what they perceive as censorship on those platforms, many influencers have set up shop on growing, censorship-free alternative platforms like Parler, Telegram, and MeWe. But Norris-Clark and her fellow conspiracy theory-espousing natural parenting influencers continue to maintain presences on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, where she continues to malign vaccines, downplay the Covid-19 pandemic, and espouse echoes of QAnon ideology.
Influencers like Norris-Clark “will make the process [of eliminating Covid-19] more drawn-out than it needs be” once a vaccine becomes widely available, says Smith. “We will have these ongoing pockets of resistance and ‘debates’ about the safety and efficacy and necessity of vaccines that will put a stick in the spokes and it will make it a bigger public health hurdle than it needs to be.”