The Midwife
A Forgotten Profession?

A midwife is a person, usually a woman, who helps assist a woman through childbirth. Historically, the midwife was a skilled woman who was called on whenever a birth happened. The original Old English word that “midwife” comes from means “with woman.” These women used wisdom learned from women who went before them and folk medicine to ease births and bring healthy babies into the world. Like many old practices, not all of the methods that midwives used were effective. However, with modern medicine’s pushing midwives out of birthing practice, a lot of useful things have been forgotten.

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For thousands of years, whenever you had a baby, you called on the local midwife. There are records going back to Greek and Roman times, as well as ancient Hindu records that mention these skilled practitioners. However, once doctors began to enter the medical establishment, restrictions were placed on midwives. Modern medicine’s campaign against midwives started in the 18th century, when surgeons became more prominent. By the early 19th century, a surgeon was present at the majority of births, if the mother was well off. Women without enough money for a doctor still went to the midwife for help. Some people think that part of the campaign against midwives occurred because, in addition to offering birth services, many midwives also knew a great deal about contraception and abortion, two things that doctors viewed as immoral.

There were a large number of medical advances in the 19th century, including germ theory, that midwives were unaware of. Because of this, the survival rate for women who used doctors became higher than that of women who used midwives. But the general attitude among doctors, from the middle of that century onward, was that women are too fragile to have anything to do with birth. Around the time that American medical doctors were campaigning against midwifery, they were also using ether to knock out women who were having babies, and widely using forceps instead of allowing the birth to proceed naturally. This approach to birth meant that along with the outdated, unsanitary methods, the useful things that midwives knew were forgotten, too.

After this media campaign, the number of births attended by midwives dropped significantly. The first official American school for midwifery opened in 1933. However, the number of births with a midwife present remained low. In Europe, more than seventy percent of normal births are assisted by trained midwives. In America, this number is only seven percent.

midwifeFortunately, the usage of midwives is on the rise. Currently, most midwives are in fact certified nurse-midwives. They are no longer relying solely on folk methods, but have the benefits of modern medical advances, in case they’re needed. This means that they must have at least a bachelor’s degree, if not a master’s or doctorate, have nursing and midwifery certifications, be licensed in all states, and be able to work with doctors. There are also some women who are certified midwives. This is the same as a nurse-midwife, but without the nurse’s training. This kind of certification has only been around since 1997, however.

The philosophy of midwives is that giving birth and pregnancy are natural events. This means that medical intervention is only needed if something goes wrong. Also, midwives help with the mental and emotional parts of giving birth, that doctors often neglect. Midwives tend to encourage mothers to trust their instincts when choosing how to give birth, rather than the dictates of the medical establishment.