Should she be prosecuted for 'catching babies'?

September 23, 1994|By Diane Laderman

A CARROLL County couple is as happy as can be with their nearly 6-month-old boy. He's happy, healthy and full of life. The couple is particularly pleased with the way he came into the world -- at home -- with just a midwife attending the birth.

They didn't want a stressful, last-minute rush to an impersonal hospital or to be subject to many of the tools commonly used for delivering babies in this country. They wanted a truly natural birth.

However, what to them was a warm, loving moment has been construed as criminal activity. You see, Maryland is one of just 11 states where the practice of lay midwifery -- a profession that is as old as time -- is outlawed. The state legislature outlawed the practice 14 years ago.

On Tuesday, Judith Mentzer, a Pennsylvania lay midwife is to go on trial in the Circuit Court of Carroll County in Westminster for what she lovingly calls "catching babies" -- meaning the mothers-to-be do the work in connection with childbirth; she simply assists.

She is charged with practicing nursing without a license and misrepresenting herself as a nurse in connection with the birth of the Carroll County boy in April. If convicted, the maximum penalty is a $5,000 fine and a year in jail for Mrs. Mentzer.

In an age when serious crimes abound, should we be spending our precious tax dollars prosecuting someone who only helps bring new lives into the world safer and cheaper than the medical community does?

During Mrs. Mentzer's Aug. 15 court appearance, 50 adults with children in tow, many like me who turned to midwives out of frustration with the medical establishment, gathered outside the Carroll County courthouse in a show of support. While the police dispersed the crowd at that time for allegedly violating an assembly law, we haven't given up our support of Mrs. Mentzer.

Some "home-birth parents" -- as we call ourselves -- have formed the fledgling Maryland Friends of Midwives, which plans to push for the legalization of lay midwives' practices in Maryland. We consider the prosecution of Judith Mentzer to be a modern-day witch hunt by Maryland's medical establishment.

After all, lay midwives help women give birth safely at home. Lay midwifery is practiced throughout most of the United States, including Pennsylvania, where Mrs. Mentzer lives.

The Amish and Mennonites, especially, use lay midwives for traditional, at-home births.

Since her indictment, Mrs. Mentzer, whose practice is based in Orrstown, Pa., has refused to practice in Maryland. As a result many Maryland couples wanting her attendance at home births will have to look elsewhere for help; before, Mrs. Mentzer routinely assisted in home births in Maryland.

The prosecution of Mrs. Mentzer doesn't mean the state is rid of lay midwives. There are an estimated 25 to 30 lay midwives with active practices in Maryland. But, unlike Mrs. Mentzer, most don't sign birth-certificate applications specifically to avoid prosecution. (Though there are spaces on Maryland birth-certificate applications for the signature of either a physician, a Certified Nurse-midwife or "other midwife.")

Mrs. Mentzer, a lay midwife for the past 15 years, apparently was investigated as a result of her signing birth-certificate applications and checking "other midwife."

Lay midwives train by apprenticeship, attending midwifery schools, or by other routes. Some learn their skills from experienced lay midwives in American Indian or Amish communities.

Mrs. Mentzer, who has studied nursing but is not a licensed nurse, was an apprentice with an Amish midwife and worked with a medical doctor before assisting in deliveries on her own. She also is trained in the emergency use of oxygen and drugs.

Lay midwives often work in poor rural areas, where there are few doctors of any kind, not to mention specialists like obstetricians. They are a godsend for the uninsured who can't afford physician and hospital fees. They also are sought out by many women who see a midwifery-assisted delivery as more natural and comfortable than a doctor-assisted one.

Certified Nurse-midwives, registered nurses who are also trained midwives, may legally practice anywhere in the country. However, not all hospitals welcome them. Also, many hospitals require Certified Nurse-midwives to relinquish their patients to doctors in the event of "complicated births" -- twins, breech (bottom first) babies and long labors. Lay midwives like Mrs. Mentzer are trained to handle all types of births, even those deemed complicated.

In 1990, my first baby, a breech, was delivered by Cesarean section against my will. I felt raped and humiliated. In 1992, my second baby, also a breech, was born pink and healthy in five pushes, at my bedside, surrounded by soft light and gentle midwives.

No tears, no episiotomy, just a strong, healthy undrugged mom. Within hours after the birth, I was entertaining guests and showing off the new baby.

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