I think it is pretty safe to say that midwifery is one of the first DIY skills in human existence. Certainly, the human body knows instinctively what to do when the time comes to birth a child. Still, I can’t imagine that we would have gotten very far as a species without someone learning how to assist in childbirth, give guidance to a mother, provide assistance to a newborn, and generally know how to take care of business.
It appears that learning the art of midwifery is flourishing both in the US and abroad. A recent story on public radio discussed how clinically trained midwives in rural Mexico might be a real healthcare solution for mothers living in rural areas, far from hospital care. Officials are hoping that by training professional midwives in basic nursing, gynecology, and obstetrics, they can not only help mothers without access to healthcare, but ease the burden placed upon the country’s overwhelmed hospitals. Worldwide health organizations have the same hope for other countries where physicians are scarce or far from rural communities.
According to the World Health Organization, approximately 350,000 women die every year due to pregnancy and childbirth related complications. Most of these preventable deaths occur in poor, rural, low income regions. They maintain that trained midwives could reduce the risk of both mother and child death during birth. About 1000 women and almost 10,000 newborns die every day due to largely preventable complications that could have been attended to by a skilled midwife. However, more than one-third of all births in the world take place without a midwife or trained health staff member.
For many expectant mothers in the United States, choosing a midwife can mean an embrace of a more natural way of life and a separation from the clinical aspects of childbirth. Some choose midwives to assist in their delivery in order to allow a more personal birth experience. Most hospitals allow midwife assistance as long as a doctor is available if intervention is needed. However, here in the U.S., more and more women are seeking home birth experiences. Often, this experience, when attended only by a midwife, is illegal in the United States – though this varies from state-to-state. Doctors and midwives continue to debate the safety of births assisted only by midwives, especially home births.
Still, stereotypes about midwives are fading. A study done by the US Centers for Disease Control found that one in every eight births in the U.S. was assisted by a midwife. Today, there are more than 5,000 certified nurse midwives in the United States who attend approximately 150,000 births annually, primarily in hospitals. Just about an hour north of our office here in Florence is a midwifery center known as The Farm that was founded by one of the most renowned midwives in the world, Ina May Gaskin. (Gaskin wrote the imperative tome Spiritual Midwifery.) This center has been open for over 40 years and the trained midwives there provide pre-natal care, assistance with delivery, and post-natal care. The center also holds training workshops to educate the next generation of midwives.
In a sense, having a child has – for a woman – always been a DIY experience. But, as trained midwives continue to find a place and fill a need for women, particularly in developing nations, we may be slowly taking more responsibility for our own health. There will always be instances when intervention via physician or hospital is absolutely necessary. But, midwives are an important option for women across the globe. Some women have the luxury of choosing to deliver using a midwife. For others, having a midwife can be the difference between life and death. The women who are studying to be clinical midwives in Mexico and some developing nations are solutions to a critical health problem. Women choosing to care for other women all over the world – re-learning and reinforcing “living arts”, educating, and empowering themselves: real women, indeed.