Midwifery: the Revival an Old Profession

Email Print

April 22, 2005 at 12:02am House Bill 36 managed to pass with just
enough votes. Now it goes on to the Senate. House Bill 36 seeks
to legalize direct-entry midwives (non–state licensed) in the
state of Missouri. Missouri is one of eight states where the practice
of midwifery without a state license is illegal. The language
of the law
makes the practice of medicine without a license
illegal, and midwifery it is argued falls under the practice of
medicine. But is assisting a woman in the completion of a natural
physiological process really the practice of medicine? For thousands
of years, the birth of a child was considered to be a natural, normal
physiological function of the woman's body. What has changed? Attitudes
concerning birth and not much else. These days giving birth is almost
considered to be hazardous to a woman's health. The idea of giving
birth without some kind of medical intervention such as narcotics
or an epidural is met with skepticism. The thought of giving birth
naturally outside of the hospital, in one's home, is met with disapproval
and fear. Truly ignorance is the mode of the day. Ignorance of how
a woman's body works, the birth process, how to cope with labor
naturally, and the reality of the safety of giving birth when it's
done with a true understanding of all of the above. With overall
U.S. c-section rates as high as one fourth of all births (Gaskin
pg.207) it's not difficult to see why so many of us have been scared
into choosing hospital births. The possibility of something going
wrong, of losing the baby or the mother, and of being overwhelmed
by pain are in the front of our minds. How is the use of a midwife
going to make a difference if this is the reality of giving birth?
Ina May Gaskin, whose recent
book The
Guide to Childbirth
documents more than 30 years experience
as a midwife, addresses all of these concerns and much more.

Woman's Body and the Birth Process

seems silly to have to state the obvious – that women were
made to give birth to babies – but this is precisely the mantra
we need to keep repeating to each other and ourselves. One of the
big difficulties in accepting this truth is the cultural mythology
in the United States surrounding the birth experience. Birth is
one of the necessary hardships women must go through to have children,
the discomfort of which should be avoided if at all possible. Gaskin
points out that this negative attitude concerning labor and birth
has much to do with the influence of the Techno-Medical Model on
our thinking. The Techno-Medical Model looks at the woman from the
perspective of the three P's says Gaskin: The Passenger (the
baby), The Passage (the pelvis and vagina), The Powers
(the strength of uterine contractions). According to the three P's,
if a woman's body doesn't deliver the baby in the time prescribed
then either her body grew too big a baby, her vagina is too small,
or her uterus is too weak, thus interventions are needed. The main
problem with this way of thinking is it doesn't allow for individual
differences in the way each woman's body progresses through labor.
While we each have the same basic design, our body's ways of working
within that design differ from woman to woman. The Midwifery Model
of care respects and honors these differences. One way it does this
is with something Gaskin refers to as the Sphincter Law. The Sphincter
recognizes the cervix as a sphincter along with the other
excretory sphincters. These sphincters function best, Gaskin points
out, in an atmosphere of privacy and familiarity. Obtaining privacy
in the hospital is nearly impossible. If you are having a normal,
healthy pregnancy and yet chose to birth your baby in a hospital
you will be surrounded by at least a half a dozen people during
and after the birth – most of whom you have never before met.
In addition, these sphincters do not respond to commands such as
"relax!" or "push!", and can close up at any
time if the person becomes frightened, or humiliated. Perhaps the
best example of this from Gaskin's book is of a woman who while
attempting to give birth was frightened by the expression of the
young resident delivering the baby when he saw what he thought was
a horrible birth defect as the child was emerging. What he in fact
saw was a baby who was presenting face first, an unusual occurrence
that he had not yet experienced. When the woman saw his expression
she became so frightened that her cervix tightened sucking the child
back up into her uterus at such a force that one of her ribs cracked!

Midwifery Model of care arms us with an understanding of what is
needed for optimum functioning of the woman's reproductive processes;
therefore, labor and birth need not be such a huge mystery, and
certainly not something we should fear.

Pain/Pleasure Riddle"

I was pregnant with our first child, women who had been through
a pregnancy and delivery felt it their duty to warn me of the horrendous
pain I would be going through. Everyone from relatives to complete
strangers would share how terrible the experience was for them.
"Thank God for drugs!", some would exclaim. It was all
very discouraging and made it difficult to approach the impending
conclusion of the pregnancy with excitement and joy. Gaskin's insights
concerning what she refers to as the "Pain/Pleasure Riddle"
are truly a revelation for those of us in this predicament. The
tendency here in the United States is to focus solely on how painful
childbirth will be, and subsequently is. For many women, childbirth
is indeed painful; however, what may surprise you is that some women
have virtually painless births. Still others experience what can
only be described as an orgasmic birth. To try and understand
these differences Gaskin compares birth to another act that involves
the exact same reproductive organs: sex. Sex as experienced by a
woman can be either painful or pleasurable mostly depending on her
level of comfort with her partner, and her level of willingness.
"A lot depends on how ready she is for the experience,"
Gaskin states. "Looked at from this perspective, it should
be less surprising that there is such a wide variation in the way
different women describe the sensations of labor and birth…. Labor
pain is a far more subtle, changeable set of sensations than our
cultural mythology admits. When I say u2018subtle' I am not talking
about the feeling of labor pain so much as the change in attitude
that can alter our perception of it."

those women fortunate enough to be the "painless birth"
category, contractions seem like something of an afterthought. One
woman I spoke to when I was pregnant with my daughter fit into this
category. She confided that all of her labors were very short, and
she only felt a sensation similar to having to go the bathroom before
her baby's head was crowning! Yet another woman friend of mine had
a similar experience in that labor lasted a mere twenty minutes
from the first contraction to the delivery of the baby – and
this was her first baby! (First labors tend to be longer overall
for most mothers.)

what about "orgasmic birth"? Gaskin conducted a small
survey of 151 women out of which she found 32 who had experienced
at least one orgasmic birth. Here are two such accounts from the

account: "I had an orgasm when I had my fourth child. It happened
while I was pushing… I orgasmed as she was being born. "

account: "I have always felt that labor and birth were like
one big orgasm… I only found the last few centimeters of dilation
as extremely strong and slightly less pleasurable. But I felt like
labor and birth were and are a continuous orgasm."

the majority of women will not fall into either of these two categories,
and will experience pain and discomfort during labor and birth.
If you choose a hospital birth you will be under the thumb of the
Techno-Medical approach, which does not cater to the woman in labor.
Hospital policies like not being allowed to eat during labor, not
being able to be submerged in water to cope with contractions, putting
a time limit on labor, being made to lie on your back during pushing,
and being surrounded by strangers, will all greatly add to the discomfort
and pain.

you choose a homebirth with a midwife, you will be in familiar surroundings
with privacy. You will be allowed to move around and get in the
bath if that helps you. You can eat, sleep, and go to the bathroom
without having to roll around an IV hookup. You can let gravity
work for you and give birth the way women have for centuries: squatting
or on your hands and knees. All of these things add up, alleviating
labor pain and speeding up the process since it is easier to stay
relaxed when you are not on the doctor's clock or hindered from
letting your body be your guide.

Safety of Birth with a Midwife

birth safe outside of a hospital with a midwife? Perhaps the best
argument for the overall safety of giving birth with a midwife is
to simply site a few of Gaskin's and her associate's statistics.
Gaskin and her husband are the co-founders of The
Farm Midwifery Center
started in 1971. Here Gaskin has attended,
with her associates, more than 2,000 births in a home-like setting.

Farm Outcomes of 2,028 Pregnancies: 1970–2000

  • Births
    completed at home (not in the hospital) – 95.1%
  • Emergency
    transports (to the hospital) – 1.3%
  • C-sections
    – 1.4% (61% were first-time mothers)
  • Forceps
    deliveries – .05%
  • Inductions
    – 5.4% (No synthetic drugs used for these)
  • Twins
    – 15 sets; all vaginally born
  • Maternal
    mortality – 0%
  • Neonatal
    mortalities – 8 out of 2028 (4 occurred during the first
    week of life)

statistics for The Farm are not an anomaly. Midwives in general
have better overall statistics and less medical interventions.
Gaskin sights a few: Mrs. Margaret Charles Smith, author of Listen
To Me Good
, attended over 3,000 births from 1943 to 1981
and boasts a zero maternal death rate. Another example is a home-birth
midwifery practice in Australia whose c-section rate was only 1.6%
for 1,190 births recorded from 1976–1983. Yet another example
is a midwifery service in Vienna where more than 44,500 births took
place between 1965 and 1985 and the c-section rate was only a little
more than 1%. These are just a few examples from Gaskin's book.

comparison the U.S overall c-section rate for 1998 alone was 26.3%,
and the labor induction rate doubled from 1989 to 1998 from 9% to
19.2% (Gaskin pg 207). Also noteworthy with regard to induction
– women who tend to receive prenatal care earlier on in their
pregnancies were more likely to be induced (Journal of Reproductive
Medicine 2002 Feb;47(2):120–4). Gaskin questions why this
phenomenon exists since there has been no change in the sizes of
babies, or any increase in maternal illnesses requiring induction.
Is it that doctors just like to have the control of how and when
women give birth? Gaskin has a theory: Obstetricians are trained
primarily in pathology – in how to recognize when something
is going wrong. While in med-school they are exposed to the worst
of what can happen during pregnancy and delivery. After such exposure
it's hard to trust in the body's natural abilities – even though
these horrors occur in only a very small percentage of births. I
know of one family doctor, who upon attending med-school changed
her pro-home birth attitude to a pro-hospital birth attitude. Another
obstetrician, whose home birth testimony is included in Gaskin's
book, tells a story of similar fears even though she went ahead
courageously, and safely gave birth at The Farm Midwifery Center.

midwifery is so safe and so woman-centered then why aren't more
people using this valuable resource? Obstetricians have their place
certainly when necessary, but why not use a midwife for a normal
pregnancy? Midwives are trained to recognize when to refer to an
obstetrician if something does go wrong anyway so in this day and
age we truly can have the best of both!

are only eight states where midwifery is illegal, and yet it is
still not the most common choice mothers make for themselves and
their babies. I think the only explanation is just plain ignorance.
If women really knew the risk at which they put themselves and their
babies by allowing themselves to be subjected to the Medical Model
of care where unnecessary interventions are the norm, often with
side effects
for the mother and baby, they certainly wouldn't
do it. Gaskin's book is a valuable resource for educating oneself
about one of the most wonderfully satisfying experiences those of
us with children can claim to have had.

31, 2005

M. Carson [send
her mail
] has
a Master's in Counseling, is the mother of a one-year-old daughter
and is eagerly expecting a second child due in September. See more
of her writing at her
web site

Email Print