In March of 1974, two midwives were summoned to help a woman give birth in a Santa Cruz, California cabin. They had met the woman before, and came prepared with their “birth bags” ready to deliver a child. But when they arrived, things were not as they expected. They noticed there was no food in the cupboards. But even stranger, there was no pregnant woman, no baby. There was a man, who pulled out some money and handed it to one of the midwives.
It turned out the woman who had hired them, while actually pregnant, was also a government agent. Several state investigators appeared next at the house, and the two midwives were arrested, charged with practicing medicine without a license, and placed in jail.
The whole event, including the pregnant agent pretending to hire the midwives, was an undercover sting targeting midwives. The birth center where they worked was then raided, evidence of surgical gloves and clamps was gathered, and a third midwife was arrested.
The Santa Cruz Birth Center had aided hundreds of births over the past three years in northern California, and, according to their records, said that no mother or child had died during one of their deliveries.
The midwives sued, and their case went to the state supreme court, which they lost in 1976. Despite the setbacks, this spotlight on the underground midwifery community spurred a part of the feminist movement. People practicing midwifery were heartened to know they weren’t alone, even though they were still ostracized.
“They lost,” says Wendy Kline, history professor at Purdue University and author of the upcoming book “Coming Home: How Midwives Changed Birth,” which delves into this story and other midwifery history. “But that was really a pivotal moment for midwives. It galvanized the movement to come forward and say: ‘This is ridiculous.’”
While the court case was going on, several of the women involved were pregnant or gave birth themselves. It was a time when women were starting to assert their rights, and a sign of how American culture was changing. Rolling Stone covered the case in 1974 in a story “California vs. Midwives: The Legalities of Attending a Birth.”
“It generated a lot of interest and debate about the true meaning of birth,” says Kline. “And who should be allowed to [deliver babies] and where it should be taking place.”
While the case attracted a lot of attention then, the story has been largely forgotten many years later. Kline makes use of personal collections and correspondence, as well as first person interviews to bring the tale back to life in her new book.
Of course, for hundreds of years, and way before modern medicine, births were primarily at home. By 1940, about half of U.S. births were in hospitals. That number jumped to 99.4% by 1970. But then, slowly, home births began happening again. First secretive, and then more out in the open. It’s still fairly unusual in America. About ten percent of babies in the U.S. are delivered by midwives. Those who study midwifery say that number is growing. But there remain some perceptions that need to change.
“There are still people today that don't realize they exist,” says Kline. “They assume it's a 17th or 18th century concept or it's just a show on the BBC.”
At the same time, infant mortality rates have actually gotten worse over the past 25 years. Maternal mortality has doubled. And there’s also a stark racial disparity. In New York, African American women are 12 times more likely to die from childbirth complications than white women.
Kline hopes colleges, including pre-med programs, can start educating young people that studying midwifery is a viable option. She says she often talks about midwifery in her classes, and students usually say they are interested, but had no idea it was a real choice.