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September 2022

Soc Sci Med. 1988 ; 26(11): 1141-58.

Content of care by independent midwives: assistance with pain in labor and birth.

Sakala C.

Health Policy Institute, Boston University, MA 02215.

The proliferation of alternative health care systems in the United States raises numerous policy issues involving (1) those providing and receiving alternative services and (2) the established medical care system. This paper identifies some of these issues by examining an alternative system of independent (lay) midwifery and, in particular, midwifery approaches to pain during uncomplicated labor and birth. The paper summarizes medical care system approaches to pain in labor and birth: leading textbooks, prevailing topics in the journal literature, and empirical research reports are consistent in giving primary emphasis to analgesic and anesthetic drugs, accepting childbirth preparation, and questioning the efficacy of other approaches. The practices of independent midwives working in metropolitan areas of Utah are strikingly different. The midwives, who oppose any use of conventional obstetric pain medications, have a diverse repertoire of alternative approaches, including prenatal preparation, various physical manipulations, hydrotherapy, administration of herbs and nutritive substances, breathing and relaxation techniques, and psychological techniques. The midwives emphasize responsiveness to the needs of a particular woman at a particular time. They enhance and mobilize the resources of the mother and her support network for therapeutic ends. Their work emphasizes innovation and exploration. Relative to medical practices, midwifery practices seem to involve low iatrogenic risks, to be cost-effective, and to be appreciated by those seeking empowerment and minimal intervention in childbirth. It is recommended that these practices be formally evaluated for safety, efficacy, consumer acceptability, cost-effectiveness, and their potential for favorable impact on the practice of medical obstetrics.

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