Lay midwife's case sparks debate

September 28, 1994|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,Sun Staff Writer

A Pennsylvania midwife who has delivered about 45 babies in Maryland pleaded guilty yesterday in Carroll County Circuit Court to practicing midwifery here and was ordered to perform 100 hours of community service counseling pregnant women in Pennsylvania.

"What a victory we had down here," said Judith A. Mentzer, who received probation before judgment as part of her sentence.

She could have been sent to jail for a year or fined up to $5,000.

About 60 of Ms. Mentzer's supporters -- including midwives and parents with toddlers and infants in tow -- turned out for her court appearance in Westminster.

Ms. Mentzer, 46, was charged in March with practicing nursing without a license and misrepresenting herself as a nurse, after the Maryland Nursing Board learned she had attended a home birth in Finksburg.

For 15 years, Ms. Mentzer has been a lay midwife in Pennsylvania, delivering nearly 1,000 babies.

Only certified nurse midwives may legally practice in Maryland.

Circuit Judge Luke K. Burns Jr. said Ms. Mentzer's community service may involve counseling pregnant migrant workers in Franklin County, Pa., where she lives.

"Obviously, you've been very successful with what you've done

in Pennsylvania," he told Ms. Mentzer.

"The presence of this many individuals attests to their faith in your work," he said of the mothers and babies filling the courtroom.

As part of Ms. Mentzer's plea agreement, prosecutors dropped the charge of misrepresenting herself as a nurse.

Ms. Mentzer refused to plead guilty to practicing nursing without a license, the offense for which she was charged. Instead, she admitted to practicing midwifery without a certificate from the Maryland Board of Nursing. Judge Burns agreed to the wording.

"Neither by word nor by action have I ever practiced as a nurse," Ms. Mentzer told Judge Burns. "I'm a midwife, and I've practiced as a midwife for 15 years."

Donna Dorsey, executive director of the Maryland Board of Nursing, said she was pleased with Ms. Mentzer's guilty plea.

"The issue is she was wrong, and the court found she was wrong and established an action it felt was appropriate," Ms. Dorsey said.

Ms. Mentzer's supporters greeted her with cheers and applause when she left the courthouse. She described the outcome of her case as a "victory" for midwifery.

Many of the people who attended Ms. Mentzer's court case yesterday are advocates of home birth. They say that a woman should have the right to choose where she gives birth and who cares for her.

In Maryland, certified nurse midwifes can legally attend home births. But lay midwives say few nurse midwives in Maryland are willing to do so.

Ms. Mentzer said the charges against her weren't based on a medical issue but on an economic power struggle between the medical establishment and midwives.

The Maryland Friends of Midwives, a group of midwife clients organized in response to Ms. Mentzer's case, has begun an effort to provide for the legal practice of lay midwives in Maryland. Now, lay midwives practice underground in Maryland.

"We're going to be working diligently on changing the law," said Carol Rhein of Finksburg, who has delivered two children at her home under the care of Ms. Mentzer.

Mrs. Rhein has contacted state Sen. Larry E. Haines, a Republican from Carroll County's District 5. He said he may support a certification

process for lay midwives.

"When a midwife and her client have an agreement to deliver at home, I don't think the state should interfere," said Mr. Haines, 56, who added that he and his five siblings were born at home.

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