Midwives push childbirth as campaign issue

TheStar.com – news/canada/politics/provincialelection
Published On Wed Sep 21 2011.   Andrea Gordon, Family Issues Reporter

Two of Ontario’s three major political parties have promised to deliver the province’s first birth centres, according to a campaign survey by the Association of Ontario Midwives.

In the survey, to be released Thursday and obtained by the Star, both the Liberals and New Democrats say they support the notion of freestanding birth centres. The centres would be run by midwives and give women who have low-risk pregnancies the option of delivering babies in a more natural setting away from hospitals.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath expanded on her party’s plans at a news conference Wednesday, saying an NDP government would open four pilot project birth centres in the province. She also promised more support for breastfeeding moms and to end the Liberals’ recent changes to the “Healthy Babies, Healthy Children” program that target only the most high-risk families.

Birth centres were not part of party platforms released previously by either party. But in response to the midwives’ survey, the Liberals said they “support piloting birth centres in Ontario and are open to exploring the possibilities for this model.”

The Conservatives did not answer repeated requests to participate in the association’s questionnaire, said president Katrina Kilroy.

Midwives have long argued that birth centres would promote normal childbirth for mothers who don’t need high-tech medical care, and reduce the climbing rates of medical interventions such as Caesarean sections, now at an all-time high. Many women’s health advocates say that with budgets under pressure, this would leave hospitals with more resources for those expectant moms who require medical support.

Birth centres would also give more families access to midwifery care; demand is so high that 40 per cent of women seeking a midwife can’t get one.

Midwives are not permitted to practice unless they have hospital privileges, which means those working in a birth centre could move patients in labour there quickly if medical care is needed.

The NDP and Liberals also pledged to boost the pay of Ontario midwives, who argue they are significantly underpaid relative to other health care providers. An independent report conducted for the Ministry of Health last spring called for a pay increase to bring them into line, but the Liberal government did not respond.

The campaign pledges aren’t the first promises midwives have heard from politicians, so Kilroy is urging mothers to speak out and keep maternal and newborn health on the radar. A commitment to birth centres dates back to the early 1990s, but the plans never materialized.

“Women and families in Ontario care about these issues,” said Kilroy. “We’ve seen enough babies being kissed. Now we’d like to see some action.”

The shortage of midwifery services is a key women’s health issue, says Karen Green, a founder of the Twitter hashtag #momthevote, launched during last spring’s federal election to provoke discussion and galvanize voters.

She said the subject was tweeted about regularly, even though midwives’ services are provincially funded.

“I think it will definitely gain momentum in this campaign,” said Green, a writer who lives in Chatham and delivered her two children with a midwife.

“It’s an issue for all mothers. If we’re not the ones pushing for better access and women’s health care, who’s going to do it?”

With the midwifery system already in place, getting a pilot birth centre up and running would only require a minimum capital investment for the space, says Kilroy, who has estimated a cost of less than $10 million for one or two centres.

Currently Quebec is the only province operating a network of birth centres, with a dozen in place and more under development. Next month, Manitoba is expected to open its first, in Winnipeg.

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