28 July 2006

In childbirth, the new makes way for the old

By Eric Jansson
Published by askdrmanny.com, 27 July 2006

Few women in labor, awaiting the birth of a baby, spare a moment to think of their state legislature. But they might be surprised to learn that, increasingly, state legislatures across the United States are thinking of them.

Following the passage in April of a reform bill legalizing the supervision of home births by certified professional midwives (CPMs) in Wisconsin, similar reform efforts are now underway in no fewer than nine states.

Alabama, North Carolina, Idaho, South Dakota, Illinois, Kentucky, Georgia, Missouri, and Indiana all await legislative debates that could lead to the licensure of certified professional midwives, says Ida Darragh, chairman of the board of the North American Registry of Midwives (NARM), the national organization that tests and registers CPMs.

Legalization and licensure of CPM practices in all these states would represent a massive legislative victory for advocates of traditional home birth.

It would also be a startling rebuke to the many physicians who have long maintained that such practices are unsafe, despite growing statistical evidence that suggests CPM-supervised home births are as safe – sometimes safer – than hospital births.

Well-organized opposition within medical lobbying groups makes such a one-sided result unlikely within the next two years, Ms. Darragh says. But, when asked if the flurry of activity in the nation’s statehouses is indicative of a national trend in support of traditional childbirth methods, she adds: “We certainly hope so.”

As with many health issues, the debate about CPMs may seem arcane to non-experts. The debate is a minefield of acronyms, and home births account for just 1 to 3 percent of all births in an average year, with similar percentages in each state.

Yet the debate casts in sharp relief a philosophical tug-of-war over the nature of childbirth that powerfully affects how expectant mothers approach the ordeal of birth.

Elsewhere as in Wisconsin, this tug-of-war pits midwives and physicians who support “natural childbirth” outside the hospital setting and with minimal intervention against the many physicians and nurses who view medical birthing techniques as safer.

When Wisconsin’s reform takes force in May 2007, Wisconsin will become the 23rd state to institutionalize a way for expectant mothers to reject a medical birthing culture entrenched since the 1950s.

Activist midwives say the Wisconsin reform adds bulk to a growing body of circumstantial evidence that America’s popular view of childbirth is in flux, with parents adopting new perspectives on labor and the role of modern medicine in it. CPMs describe labor and birth as “natural” events rather than medical emergencies necessitating medical intervention.

“I think it is a trend,” says Katherine Prown, legislative chair of the Wisconsin Guild of Midwives. “We have seen Minnesota, Utah, Virginia and now Wisconsin all pass laws since 1999. There is a lot of momentum behind these bills.”

Traditional midwifery is struggling to reemerge from the obscurity in which it has languished since passage of Medical Practice Acts (MPAs) by all 50 states, in the 1950s. These acts criminalized the “practice of medicine” by unqualified individuals. They need not have impacted traditional midwifery, but they did in 49 states because only Mississippi offered an exemption for midwives, Ms. Darragh says.

Yet whatever the movement’s momentum, there is also powerful opposition. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), a well-funded proponent of childbirth in the hospital setting, opposed the Wisconsin reform, publishing a position paper stating that CPM-supervised home birth “cannot be considered safe”.

ACOG also urged state officials to take “immediate aggressive action” against “unsafe birth practices”.

Such action was seen earlier this year in Indiana, where state prosecutors earlier this year charged Jennifer Williams, a CPM, with practicing medicine without a license. Ms. Williams, who says she helped 1,500 women give birth safely before she faced any charges, pled guilty. She has since filed a lawsuit against the state attorney general, asking an Indiana circuit court to distinguish between midwifery and “the practice of medicine.” Ms. Williams is also part of the group campaigning for legalization and licensure of CPM practices in Indiana.

The divergence in approach between Wisconsin’s legalizers and Indiana’s prosecutors shows the wide variety of options available to legislators and regulators. States have essentially three options: to legalize, license and regulate the work of CPMs as Wisconsin and 22 other states now do, to prosecute CPMs as Indiana and some others have done, or to turn a blind eye as Mississippi does.

Democratic pressure on statehouses throughout the country could one day yield a consensus, either in CPMs favor or against them. In the meanwhile, those embroiled in the debate are confronted with a growing body of scientific research.

One study frequently cited by CPMs was published last year in the British Medical Journal, an academic publication, by Kenneth Johnson, senior epidemiologist for the surveillance and risk assessment division of Canada’s Center for Chronic Disease Prevention, and Betty Anne-Daviss, a project manager at the Ottawa-based International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics.

The study reviewed records of all CPM-supervised home births in North America in the year 2000 and led Dr. Johnson to conclude that “planned home birth for low-risk women in North America using certified professional midwives was associated with lower rates of medical intervention but similar intra-partum and neonatal mortality to that of low-risk hospital births in the United States.”

Asked to provide any statistical evidence contradicting such studies, for the sake of this story, ACOG sent none but e-mailed two policy statements further explaining the organization’s position on the certification of midwives.

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