“Call the Midwife”

Birth Story could hardly ignore the debut of a new PBS series called Call the Midwife, an import from England. I watched the first episode last night, and I expect I'll be a regular viewer.

I didn't love the first episode of Call the Midwife, though. I thought it romanticized birth on the low end of the social order in London in 1957, even though it begins with two women fighting on a street in the tough East End.

This episode of "Call the Midwife" features a woman who had 25 children, and that made me wonder what the record is for offspring from one woman.

Well, here it is — 69.

The wife of Feodor Vassilyev (1707–c.1782), a peasant from Shuya, Russia (they didn't even keep track of her name!) had 27 "confinements," in which she gave birth to 16 pairs of twins, seven sets of triplets and four sets of quadruplets.

Pushing back against home-birth critics

British and Australian midwives are pushing back against a recent editorial in The Lancet, a British medical journal, which builds on a study released last month that appears to show that home births are less safe than those that occur in a hospital.

"Women have the right to choose how and where to give birth, but they do not have the right to put their baby at risk," stated the unsigned editorial from July 31.Pregnant Graffiti

In an interview today with the Guardian, a British newsaper, Cathy Warwick, the general secretary of the Royal College of Midwives, said that midwives believe home birth is "being unfairly pilloried by some sectors of the global medical maternity establishment."

Hannah Dahlen, the president of the Australian College of Midwives, weighed in as well. "Intense medical lobbying and strategically released journal articles" had put midwifery in her country "in the hands of the medical profession," she said.

Warwick said, "What shocked us about The Lancet editorial was its language and tone and how it pumped the hype about the dangers of home birth, and made sweeping and misogynistic statements."

"The Lancet said it stood by its editorial," wrote Randeep Ramesh in the Guardian article.

The impetus for the piece in The Lancet was a meta-analysis scheduled for release next month in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, a peer-reviewed journal published jointly by a number of organizations that includes the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine. The meta-analysis was presented at the SMFM meeting in Chicago in February.

The article, published on-line last month, "provides the strongest evidence so far that home birth can, after all, be harmful to newborn babies," according to The Lancet editorial.

Home births account for about 3 percent of births in the United Kingdom, according to the article in The Lancet; in the United States, the figure is about 1 percent.

American midwifery groups and out-of-hospital birth advocates like The Big Push for Midwives have already questioned the findings of the AJOG article.

The Coalition for Improving Maternity Services called the report a "poorly designed and methodologically unsound study," expressed itself "outraged" that AJOG accepted it for publication, and suggested the report was rushed on-line as a ploy to stop legislation then pending (since signed into law) in New York that will make the practice of midwifery easier in that state.

"Pregnant Graffiti" by Petteri Sulonen

New York delivers for midwives

Last Friday, New York's Gov. David Paterson signed into law A8117b-S5007a, the so-called Midwifery Modernization Act, which removes the requirement for midwives to obtain a written practice agreement from a physician or hospital to practice in New York State. The bill will take effect in three months.

Paterson's signature was by no means a sure thing — the Democratic governor, who is not seeking re-election in the fall, vetoed thousands of bills this summer, and he waited until the very last possible day to sign the midwifery bill.

Not only that, but the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the new political arm of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, lobbied against the legislation. The group argued that it would make midwife-assisted birth less safe, as midwives who did not have formal relationships with doctors might not be able to access medical care in an emergency.Pregnant Graffiti WPAs have been a condition of practice for midwives in New York since 1992.

But old certitudes and worst-case-scenarios fell flat in Albany this summer.

The closing of St. Vincent's Hospital in New York City last spring created a crisis for those relatively few women seeking home birth with midwives, and provided an object lesson in the difficulties the requirement for a written practice agreement could create. By June, seven midwives who had had WPAs with St. Vincent's were still scrambling to find doctors willing and/or able to formally partner with them, and hundreds of mothers who had been planning to deliver at home were in a state of limbo.

Beyond the immediate concerns, though, the ease with which the bills sailed through the New York legislature — the vote was unanimous in the Senate — suggests that midwifery has attained a mature level of acceptance in New York, which has perhaps 900 midwives, more than any other state.

Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, for example, one of the bill's sponsors, had her children with midwives, including two home births.

Groups that represent midwives emerged as effective lobbyists for the bill, mustering thousands of calls, emails and signatures on petitions.

Meanwhile, ACOG's efforts were notable for gaffes like a quote in the New York Times from Donna Montalto,  executive director of ACOG's New York division, who said physicians might balk at providing emergency care without a WPA.

“What obstetrician who has never seen the patient, doesn’t know the midwife, and happens to be at home at their son’s baseball game is going to say, ‘Sure, I’ll come in and take care of your patient,’?” Montalto said.

Perhaps most importantly, the new act affirms the view that birth is a natural event, and not necessarily a medical one. New York legislators have given midwives a vote of confidence, one that could portend a significant shift in attitudes about childbirth.

"Pregnant Graffiti" by Petteri Sulonen

ACOG vs. midwives in NY

A fight worth watching is shaping up in the New York State Legislature, where a bill that would ease restrictions on the practice of midwifery has attracted opposition from the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the new political arm of the 59-year-old organization that represents physicians who specialize in caring for women.

The bill, dubbed the Midwifery Modernization Act by its supporters, would give midwives the right to attend pregnant women without first obtaining a written practice agreement from a medical doctor.

On June 17, ACOG held a press conference in Albany to warn that the bill could compromise the safety of mothers and babies by exposing them to the risk of delivering without medical backup in the event of an emergency.

Midwives say that they sometimes have a hard time finding a doctor, say, in rural areas, willing and able provide a written practice agreement. And, they say, the problem is not confined to the boondocks.Pregnant Graffiti

After St. Vincent's Hospital in New York City closed last April, seven midwives who attend home births found themselves without a practice agreement, according to a story in the New York Times. St. Vincent's, a Catholic hospital, reportedly was uncommonly sympathetic to home births.

New York has as many as 900 midwives, more than any other state, according to Laura Sheperis, president of the New York Association of Licensed Midwives, in a separate story. Fifteen states so far do not require written practice agreements, which Sheperis has characterized as a "cumbersome and unnecessary barrier to health care and provider choice."

The bill would not prohibit doctors and midwives from creating written practice agreements; it would remove the requirement for them.

ACOG came out swinging against home births (along with the American Medical Association) in 2008 in response to "The Business of Being Born," a film that featured the home birth experience of actress/former talk-show host Ricki Lake.

"...Monitoring of both the woman and the fetus during labor and delivery in a hospital or accredited birthing center is essential because complications can arise with little or no warning even among women with low-risk pregnancies," ACOG stated in 2008.

Obstetricians deliver about 70 percent of American babies, while midwives, mostly nurse-midwives, handled roughly 8 percent of births in 2004. Family physicians attend about 20 percent of American births.

"Pregnant Graffiti" by Petteri Sulonen

The Frontier Nursing Service

Mary Breckinridge, a daughter of a prominent Kentucky family that included John C. Breckinridge, James Buchanan’s vice president, suffered the loss of both her children before they reached the age of 5. Instead of allowing these tragedies to ruin her life, she channeled her energy into a passionate campaign to improve the health of the children of Appalachia.

Mary Breckinridge

Mary Breckinridge at work

To Breckinridge, a healthy child required a safe birth, a living mother and a healthy family. Making childbirth safe was a primary goal when, in 1925, she founded the Frontier Nursing Service in Leslie County, Ky. The previous year, Breckinridge, 43 and already a nurse, had traveled to England to learn midwifery because she could find no adequate course in the United States. She continued to send FNS nurses to England until the outbreak of World War II.

The FNS deployed the first nurse-midwives to practice in the United States. Breckinridge had encountered nurse-midwives in Europe, and thought that the model was well suited not only for delivering babies but also for providing prenatal care and for assessing and helping to plan for the health needs of the whole family and, indeed, the whole community.

FNS nurses traveled by horseback to attend home births; high-risk patients went to the FNS hospital in Hyden, Ky. Clinics in the community served an average of 250 families. The FNS maternal mortality rate for its first 30 years was about one quarter of the rate for the United States as a whole.

Breckinridge died in 1965. The Frontier Nursing Service, based in Wendover, Ky., is still active, as its midwifery school, which was added in 1939.