The official Church’s position and vocal advocacy regarding abortion are ever present in the media. Meanwhile, every day in the U.S. two women die as a result of pregnancy and childbirth. Last year at this time, Amnesty International issued a report called Deadly Delivery: The Maternal Health Care Crisis in the USA, in which this and other chilling statistics were cited: Maternal mortality rates have risen over the past two decades. The U.S. spends more than any other country on health care and more on maternal health than any other type of hospital care, yet American women have a higher risk of dying around the time of childbirth than women in 40 other countries. African-American women are nearly four times more likely to die of childbirth complications than white women. By contrast, the bishops’ Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services make no mention of normal childbirth at all.
Although the Church is not in the forefront of response to this crisis, fortunately many other groups (especially women!) are. Recently I had a wonderful opportunity to gather with a group of women and learn about efforts here in Ohio to obtain licensure for Certified Professional Midwives (CPM) so that families desiring homebirth will have access to safe, legal care, and I am eager and energized to work on behalf of this issue. While it addresses only one piece of a complex national issue, licensing CPMs is still an important step. In countries that have better outcomes for mothers and babies than the U.S., midwives are a stronger presence in the health care system than they are here.
Increasing access to the Midwives Model of Care is a key point in all birth reform campaigns, because evidence demonstrates its benefits – fewer interventions, healthier moms and babies, lower costs. Yet a tug of war that began in the 19th century between the medical model of birth and the midwives model continues. The medical model is very powerful and well-funded, while historically midwives saw themselves as serving local communities and were not well-organized. That has changed. Today numerous groups of consumers and professionals working together are pressing for evidence-based care with a strong role for midwives.
At the meeting I attended, a midwife who has worked in a variety of birth-related settings for nearly 40 years noted that supporters of the two models really speak different languages, suggesting that a deeper transformation is required to arrive at a holistic system that incorporates the best of midwifery and medicine for the benefit of women and babies. This is where I think that religious faith brings something essential to the conversation, specifically the capacity to both deeply reflect on and critically analyze significant matters from varying angles. By analogy, consider what Catholic theology has contributed to our approach to issues of death and dying; a whole body of literature addresses how to balance medical science with human dignity. Normal childbirth is a profound rite of passage that cries out for such theological attention in ways that affirm women and articulate the spiritual meaning of the body process of birth. I am hopeful that it will come about.