Home birthing has been on the rise throughout the pandemic. As concerns about COVID-19 and restrictive hospital visitation measures persist, many expectant mothers are more motivated than ever to give birth in an environment they trust. 

Even before 2020, women were increasingly turning away from what they viewed as an overly sterile, institutionalized hospital environment. Statistics show the number of women choosing home birth increased by 80 percent between 2004 and 2017. This number reflects the growing cultural trend toward getting back to basics, from eating organic to living in nature. 

The Role of Midwives

Typically, babies birthed at home are delivered by a midwife in place of a physician. While many midwives receive nurse training or other certifications, in many states there is no legal requirement that a midwife is medically certified. However, midwives are expected to have the medical knowledge and competence to perform their roles. 

For much of history, birth was the sole domain of midwives. The trend only began to shift in the late 1800s, when doctors began receiving medical training to deliver babies. By the mid-1900s, only the poor used midwives, while the wealthy mainly gave birth in hospitals via medical staff.

It wasn’t until the women’s movement of the 1970s that voluntary midwifery made a comeback. Feminists reclaimed earlier ideas that birth was a fundamentally female issue that should not involve the traditionally masculine input of western medicine. Since then, the trend toward birthing with a midwife instead of, or in addition to, a medical doctor has continued to grow. 

The Rise of Doulas

Unlike midwives, doulas serve more of an emotional support role and typically do not provide medical services. They often help the woman adapt to pregnancy and prepare for motherhood. Doulas also generally play an advisory role as the woman makes key decisions related to her birth plan. Though carrying less responsibility than a midwife, doulas are expected to have the knowledge necessary to make reasonably safe recommendations. 

While the term “doula” was not officially coined until 1969, women have sought female companions to support the labor and birthing process since the beginning of time. Today, the trend toward using both midwives and doulas is prevalent even among women delivering babies in hospitals and birthing centers. In these settings, birthing professionals typically serve as advocates and coaches to help expectant mothers through labor.

Midwife and Doula Malpractice

Though midwives and doulas are not physicians, they can still be held liable in medical malpractice and negligence claims. Common types of midwife and doula malpractice and negligence are the same as those against formal medical professionals: failure to treat, misdiagnosis, and negligent medical care.

One of the most common forms of midwife and doula malpractice involves the discouragement of necessary medical intervention. While many birthing professionals are highly skilled and rational in high-risk settings, some favor natural birth to the point of endangering the health of the mother and child. They may play into the mother’s aversions to modern medicine so persuasively that the mother refuses necessary medical care.

For example, a woman may have stated throughout pregnancy that she does not want a C-section. When the birthing process hits complications, and the physician recommends surgery, the midwife or doula may urge the expectant mother to push through the fear and deliver her baby as intended. These professionals typically have a much stronger relationship with the mother than the physician and can exert undue influence. A similar scenario often occurs when a home birth stalls and a midwife or doula discourages going to the hospital.

Giving birth comes with inherent dangers, whether in or out of the hospital. To succeed in a malpractice claim, the mother will need to show a substantial likelihood that the discouraged medical intervention would have prevented the birth injury or other harm suffered. She will also need to establish that the midwife or doula failed to give reasonable guidance under the circumstances. There are cases where medical intervention may have helped, but a competent midwife or doula similarly situated would have issued the same recommendation. 

Just as in any situation involving medical malpractice, successful claims can help compensate the mother for any losses. Birth injuries can carry expensive medical bills and cause parents to lose valuable time from work. Losing a child, of course, carries immense emotional damages. While nothing can undo these tragedies, the purpose of a malpractice claim is to bring the injured as close to “whole” as possible.

Guidance for Mothers and Families

The best way to avoid midwife or doula malpractice is to thoroughly research and interview birthing professionals before hiring. Make sure they have the necessary knowledge and expertise to provide competent care and guidance. Ask probing questions about their approach to emergencies. The best midwife or doula will advocate for your interests and needs ahead of their own personal principles.

However, if you or your baby has been injured due to midwife or doula malpractice, the best way forward is to consult with a medical malpractice attorney. Understanding your rights can help you determine whether a lawsuit is worth the time and energy. Most law firms, including ours, offer free consultations, and there is no fee unless your case is successful. Sommers Schwartz has helped countless women recover damages against birthing professionals. We would be honored to represent you in this trying time. 

Richard L. Groffsky

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Richard L. Groffsky

Richard Groffsky focuses his practice on medical malpractice and personal injury litigation, and has represented victims of devastating brain injuries and birth injuries in Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, South Carolina, and Georgia in significant brain injury and birth injury cases.