Glenarm lay midwife charged in death of 13-pound infant born not breathing

January 25, 1995|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Sun Staff Writer

Cynthia and Johnny Morgan planned for years how their first baby was going to be born: on their terms, in their house and with a lay midwife.

And even though their 13-pound son, Jonathan Caleb Morgan, died during delivery last month, the Morgans aren't blaming the Baltimore County woman who oversaw the birth.

But Carroll County prosecutors have filed charges against the woman. Karen Hunter, of Glenarm, a lay midwife for the past eight years, was arrested Friday and charged with two counts of reckless endangerment, practicing nursing without a license and misrepresenting herself as a nurse.

"As horrible as it all was, it was one of those things," Mrs. Morgan, an Air Force sergeant, said yesterday of Jonathan's death. "As much as I have the grief and all of the feelings that come with that, and even anger at the situation, I blame nobody. I know what happened. I was there."

Mrs. Morgan said that she began labor in the early afternoon Dec. 18. She said that her labor "progressed nicely" until she began to push shortly before midnight. She said that after more than two hours of pushing, Ms. Hunter's "tone of voice changed."

Mrs. Morgan said that Ms. Hunter noticed the baby's shoulders were keeping him from progressing. Paramedics were called.

The baby was born not breathing, Mrs. Morgan said. When paramedics arrived, they began trying to resuscitate the child and he was taken to Carroll County General Hospital.

An investigator with the state's attorney's office began looking into Jonathan Caleb's death after nurses and doctors at the Westminster hospital reported that they had been unable to ZTC resuscitate the infant in the early morning hours of Dec. 19. After an autopsy, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner determined that the baby "was in danger by the lack of professional medical care," according to District Court charging documents filed by Investigator Gary T. Childs.

"I was never in any danger," Mrs. Morgan said. "I still firmly believe in home births. She was responsible for giving us the best possible care that could be given."

Ms. Hunter's arrest marks the second time in a year that Carroll prosecutors have pursued charges against a lay midwife, and it places her -- and the Morgans -- squarely in the debate over Maryland's prohibition on midwives who aren't also nurses.

"I am totally, completely not a nurse," Ms. Hunter, 33, said yesterday. "I chose specifically not to be a nurse, but, I'll tell you, I've taken care of many births for nurses, doctors and other midwifes."

Ms. Hunter, who was released without posting bail, said she has attended more than 145 births and that the Morgan baby was the first to be still-born under her guidance.

Under state law, only certified nurse midwives may practice in Maryland. Certified nurse midwives are legal in all states. In 13 states, including Maryland, lay midwifery is illegal.

At least 14 states have statutes that provide for licensing or some form of legal recognition of lay midwives, and, in the remaining states, the profession falls into a legal gray area in which they are not regulated but also aren't prosecuted.

To the handful or so of lay midwives who openly practice in Central Maryland, the prohibition is a turf-battle with traditional health-care providers.

"I believe a woman needs to give birth where she feels safe and comfortable," Ms. Hunter, a minister of the nondenominational Church of Inner Wisdom, said. "Birth is a natural process. It is best when it is left alone."

The head of the state's nursing board disagrees, and said the state's ban on lay midwifery is well-founded. "It's against the law," said Donna Dorsey, executive director of the Maryland Board of Nursing. "The board's position is that these people need a certain level of formal education, and, in midwifery, apprenticeships or preceptorships are inadequate. We want healthy babies and healthy mothers, and not [to] put anybody at a greater risk than they have to be."

Mrs. Morgan doesn't believe she was at any greater risk with Ms. Hunter, she said. "My husband and I will both do everything we can to support her," she said.

Among the charges that are most galling to Mrs. Morgan is the claim that Ms. Hunter misrepresented herself as a nurse. "We signed something telling us that she was not a nurse, and that she was not licensed by the state of Maryland," Mrs. Morgan said.

"We came to her, we knocked on her door. . . . She is not a backwoods, uneducated person doing dangerous things," she said.

Carroll County Assistant State's Attorney Theresa Adams declined to discuss the case, except to say, "We were satisfied we had probable cause, so we authorized the charges. It's as simple as that."

If convicted of all counts, Ms. Hunter -- a single mother of three daughters -- could be sentenced to 12 years in prison and fined $20,000. No trial date has been set.

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