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A Victory for Moms and Midwives

At the end of August, the University of Chicago Hospitals reopened their nurse midwife unit. As one of the pregnant mothers who protested to stop the closure of the unit thirteen years ago, I celebrate–and feel vindicated by–this development.

The Midwives Model of Care is based on the belief that pregnancy and birth are normal life processes. Nurse midwives are widely known for minimizing technological interventions and for their emphasis on listening to women, and the needs of their bodies. Midwifery is a practice as old as time. In the Bible, midwives consoled and encouraged mothers Rachel and Tamar while they were in labor. The two Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, play a vital role in the Moses origin story  and have been identified in midrashim over the centuries as renowned Biblical heroines.

Cropped: Alice Bailes, Pioneering Midwife, delivering a baby
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Jewish midwife, Alice Bailes, changed the way that women thought about natural birth and home birth in the 1980s.

When I was pregnant with my first son in 2001, I chose U of C’s nurse midwives because of their personal connection and encouragement before, during, and after labor. Their consultations were always marked by a warm, midwestern, and professional character as they listened to my concerns and allayed my prenatal fears. There’s a reason their practice was wildly popular in the Hyde Park neighborhood at the time.

In 2003, when the new head of obstetrics at the University of Chicago decided to close the nurse midwife practice, he said it was due to cost. For me and many other past and present patients,the closing of the midwife clinic not only deprived us of the practice’s down-to-earth and accessible approach to pregnancy, it also felt like yet another attack on women and our access to quality reproductive health. It seemed to communicate that women's comfort, and the personal services midwives provided, weren’t valued as a meaningful aspect of obstetrics.

I was so angry at that decision that I had to act––and so, a neighborhood-wide protest grew out of a support group called the Parent Support Network (PSN). The battle took place on the steps of the hospital and the pages of both Chicago and national newspapers. During the protest, I organized and wrote a newsletter dedicated to our efforts to save the midwives, channeling my childhood in Jewish youth movements, when we wrote letters and rallied to advocate for the release of Soviet Jews.

I loved being a part of a grassroots effort where random neighborhood people came together to fight for a mother’s right to have the birth experience of her choosing. But there were many frustrating moments and disagreements about how to wage the protest. (One person proposed we publicize the telephone number of the chair of obstetrics and the family foundation with their name on the hospital so as many people as possible would call to protest the decision to close the midwife practice. I thought it was a great idea but someone else who worked at a foundation shot the idea down as impolite.)

Our group held a rally right in front of the hospital. About a hundred people of childbearing age––mostly graduate students and postdocs, including my husband––came out of their offices and labs to participate. Some took a break to breastfeed their infants, other parents marched while pushing babies in strollers, and still others chanted while bouncing fussy toddlers on their laps. I remember standing on a wall, pregnant, reading a speech someone else wrote. A powerful chant went up: “If the midwives go, so do we! Goodbye, U of C!”

Recently when I spoke with Erin Irwin, the director of Midwifery Services at University of Chicago Medical Center, she told me she had watched our Hyde Park pro-midwife activism with envy.  A clinic where she worked at that same time, but in a low income area, was closing and no one made a peep.

University of Chicago Family Birth Center Logo, 2016.
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University of Chicago Family Birth Center Logo, 2016.

Now that the baby I carried during that protest nears his Bar Mitzvah and the midwife practice is reopening, I feel vindicated. Statistics from the American College of Nurse-Midwives show that there is a steady increase of births attended by these professionals. The PSN members today say they still value that style of care and may consider coming back to U of C.

While this is a bright glimmer for my old neighborhood, there are clearly still threats to the practice of midwifery today. This year’s annual summit sponsored by the publication Midwifery Today focuses on birth as a human-rights issue because a “country’s regulatory framework also impacts women’s choices in childbirth, quality of care and safety for mothers and babies.” Among the planned sessions on childbirth is one asserting the importance of advocacy to support and allow mothers and babies this kind of care. I hope that the reopening of a beloved local midwife practice in Chicago might signal the power of advocacy, and the re-acceptance of this vital service for women and their babies.

 

Have a thing for midwives? Learn all about Hannah Sandusky, Alice Bailes, and other amazing Jewish midwives on our site! 

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More on: Midwifery, Mothers,
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Cropped Excerpt of "The Creation" by Judy Chicago
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Cropped Excerpt of "The Creation" by Judy Chicago
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How to cite this page

Weinstein, Dina. "A Victory for Moms and Midwives." 14 September 2016. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 14, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/victory-for-moms-and-midwives>.

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