Physicians Campaign Doomed Practice Of Midwifery

September 04, 1996

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Why and how did midwives disappear from the United States by 1930? Many reasons have been given over the years, the most recent one being that the medical profession used "the illegality of abortion and scandal in the press to restrict their competitors."

So says a scholar who has examined the way midwives and abortion became linked in the Progressive Era.

According to historian Leslie Reagan, a campaign to control midwives that was waged by physicians - primarily from what was a new specialty, obstetrics - focused on blaming midwives for abortion. However, stigmatizing midwives for practicing illegal abortion "conveniently ignored the role that physicians played in illegal abortion," said Reagan, whose findings appear in a recent issue of the Bulletin of the History of Medicine.

The essay, which focuses on events in Chicago, looks at how the discussion about midwives among medical professionals entered popular discussions about the sexual dangers of the early 20th century. The obstetricians' campaign to restrict midwives succeeded, in part, Reagan writes, because it "channeled anxiety about female sexuality into support for the medical program of midwife control."

According to Reagan, a professor of history and of medicine at the University of Illinois, "The combined campaign to control abortion and midwifery took the form of a classic Progressive Era reform movement: A coalition of private-interest groups - physicians, female reformers, nurses and journalists - of the native-born, white middle class identified a problem, investigated and documented its extent in 'objective' reports, and mobilized to promote a state-sponsored solution."

Chicago obstetrician Eliza H. Root helped launch the national medical campaign to control midwives. Speaking at a meeting in 1893, she stressed the need to improve physicians1 obstetrical education. The specialists at the meeting, however, rallied around the "crimes and inadequacies of midwives," and in so doing, "relegated to the background the problems of poor obstetrical practices by physicians and poor obstetrical training in medical education." Soon after, the specialists drafted a resolution that "called upon the states to require training and testing of midwives before licensing them."

Grace Abbott, an influential reformer, took another tack in a 1915 report, urging the recognition and training of midwives, but two months after it was published, "Abortion in Chicago exploded into public view," Reagan writes, when news of a bizarre abortion-related death appeared on the front pages of the city's papers. A few days later, the coroner of Cook County declared war on abortion. News coverage moved women's groups to call for the suppression of abortion and the regulation of midwifery.

Reagan wrote "When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1860s-1973," to be published this winter by the University of California Press. The manuscript for the book was cited for merit by the Social Science History Association. -ael-

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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