Saturday, August 30, 2008


I don’t want to over-dramatise the issue, but it’s an unavoidable fact: midwives who offer homebirth are in competition with doctors for the work. The contested terrain is the place of birth, and it’s not an equal contest. It’s one of those mad experiences from Alice’s wonderland, when she is either enormous and unable to fit, or so small that she’s likely to be stepped on and squashed.

Homebirth midwives who work independently don’t have ‘much’ to offer – except HOMEBIRTH, that is. And when professionally attended homebirth is not available any other way than through a private agreement between a mother and a midwife, independent homebirth midwives continue to work despite the social and professional restrictions we face each day. If it weren’t for the fact that homebirth makes so much sense to a small number of birthing women that they are prepared to pay for it, we would soon be out of work. We can’t buy insurance; we can’t get visiting access to the same hospitals that are very happy to employ us as ‘their’ midwives; we have to ask women to go to the local GP to request even the most basic blood tests and investigations, and to prescribe oxytocics that are considered essential in preventing or treating post partum haemorrhage.

I am referring only to professionally attended births. There is a steady trend, possibly growing, in which women give birth unattended. Some are surprised by the speed and intensity of their labours, while others consciously delay going to hospital, until the baby is ‘coming: ready or not’. These out of hospital, unattended births have always happened, and will continue. A few Australian women today make a decision to give birth at home without professional attention; possibly with an unregulated lay birth attendant.

Back to my initial statement, that midwives are in competition with doctors for the work of attending birth. There’s a complication that arises in looking at the contested terrain of birth. It’s not only homebirth. We have to include small birth centres and hospitals that are separate from 24-hour anaesthetic or obstetric care. These hospitals and birth centres, like homebirth, can ‘only’ support spontaneous birth. I say ‘only’, and ask, “What’s ‘only’ about that? Is that not enough? It’s huge.” Yet, how available is it? Many rural health services are sending these women to larger regional centres to give birth, because there is no obstetric or anaesthetic cover at a particular time. Do they have midwives? Of course they do. Why can’t those midwives take professional responsibility for the births? Because they never have been expected to work on their own authority, and in many cases they don’t want that responsibility. The hospital system, and those who work in it, expect doctors to be on hand to induce labours, and order narcotics and epidurals. The hospital system, in most cases, has women booked under the name of a doctor. The midwives work shifts, and the mother-to-be is not likely to know or trust the midwife who is working when she comes to the hospital in labour. The midwife is effectively, doctor’s assistant.

You would think that the leaders of a rational, sane society, like ours, committed to providing essential health services for all, would say “Right, there are going to be about 300,000 (and growing) babies born in Australia each year. At least half of these women (actually many more, but I’m not wanting to inflate the calculation) are likely to give birth to healthy babies without any complications. That means a midwife could provide the maternity care, and it means they can give birth wherever they choose.” If those 150,000 women were in the care of a midwife or group of midwives who were competent in attending birth on their own responsibility, which incidentally is what ALL midwives are declared able to do when they graduate, they could all give birth in primary level care, isolated from specialist obstetric or anaesthetic care. That is, almost all could give birth in the small country hospitals, freestanding birth centres, or in their own homes. The few who experience unexpected complication in labour would be transferred to a hospital that provides the service they need, in the same way that women and midwives planning homebirth make informed decisions as labour progresses.

The current annual rate for homebirth is 0.2%, approximately 600. I don’t have the number of babies born in primary maternity units without obstetricians and anaesthetists on call, but it’s also likely to be very small. The hospital based programs that have been offered in recent years have struggled to maintain management support. 600 out of 150,000.

Evidence of the contested terrain of homebirth is clear in the statement against home births by the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZOG). The statement “The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZCOG) does NOT endorse home birth.” ( This statement has been in effect since 1987, and was most recently updated June 2008. I suspect very few obstetricians have attended or seriously investigated homebirth.

The RANZCOG statement lists a set of recommendations for those women who are planning homebirth, including the statement that “Women choosing home birth should be cared for by both an experienced medical practitioner and a registered midwife, each of whom has agreed to participate”. This paternalistic recommendation is a curious one, as very few medical practitioners in Australia or New Zealand today are attending homebirths. It says: “Don’t do it, but if you do, here’s what you must do!” There does not appear to be any literature quoted in the RANZCOG statement to support this recommendation.

Midwives and obstetricians collaborate in providing expert maternity care for women and their babies. Obstetricians rely on midwives to admit women to hospital maternity units, assess progress, report to, and summon them at certain times. Obstetricians cannot provide maternity care without midwives’ support and collaboration. A RANZCOG statement such as this one imposes a wedge between the midwifery and obstetric professions. Some individual obstetricians support homebirth, having worked in countries where midwifery practice in offering homebirth is accepted and respected.

The midwife is the only professional who offers birthing services without requiring the support of other professional groups, and the only time that sort of birthing service can be offered is when the woman herself does the work. The healthy woman comes into spontaneous labour at term, progresses without artificial stimulation or analgesia, and works with her own body’s power to give birth to her unmedicated, healthy baby. The midwife works in harmony with the woman, and does not interrupt or intervene or disturb the wonderful process of birthing. There is no need in these births for hospital specialties: nursing, anaesthetics, obstetrics, paediatrics, or any other medical specialty. There is also no need for alternative therapies. The woman is not sick; she is giving birth. All she needs is a midwife.

This is the root of the contested terrain of birth.

I think that’s enough for today. Another time I will explore medical dominance of the terrain of birth, and how midwives have apparently accepted a subordinate position.

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