Judge declines to drop charges of lay midwifery


Maryland's ban on lay midwives is unconstitutional and represents a needless governmental interference into the rights of women, a lawyer said yesterday during a pretrial hearing for a Baltimore County woman accused of attending the birth of a stillborn baby in Sykesville.

"This all comes down to a matter of choice, and the way the law is in Maryland it comes down to a woman not having this choice," said lawyer Sally Cromwell after she failed to persuade Carroll Circuit Judge Luke K. Burns Jr. to dismiss two of three charges against her client, Karen Hunter of Glenarm.

"It has all come down to a turf battle, with nurses and doctors wanting to protect their turf as more and more people turn to lay midwives," Ms. Cromwell said.

Ms. Hunter, 33, had been a lay midwife for more than eight years when she attended the birth of Cynthia and Johnny Morgan's 13-pound son, Jonathan Caleb Morgan, who was stillborn.

An investigator for the state's attorney's office began looking into Jonathan Caleb's death after nurses and doctors at Carroll County General Hospital reported that they had been unable to resuscitate the infant in the early hours of Dec. 19.

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore determined in an autopsy that the baby "was in danger by the lack of professional medical care," according to District Court charging documents filed by investigator Gary T. Childs.

About a month after the still birth, Carroll authorities arrested Ms. Hunter and charged her with two counts of reckless endangerment, practicing midwifery without a license and misrepresenting herself as a nurse. The final charge was dropped after prosecutors determined that the Morgans were aware that Ms. Hunter was not a nurse.

Ms. Hunter's arrest places her squarely in the debate over Maryland's prohibition against midwives who are not nurses.

Ms. Cromwell sought to persuade the judge to dismiss the reckless endangerment charge, saying "it is impossible to recklessly endanger a stillborn baby." And, she asked Judge Burns to throw out the midwifery charge on constitutional grounds. The judge denied all the requests.

Ms. Cromwell had argued that Maryland law infringes on a woman's right to privacy in making health care decisions. She also said the law unfairly limits lay midwives from practicing, even though they are skilled professionals.

Ms. Hunter has said that the Morgan's baby was her first stillborn infant in more than 140 deliveries.

Last week, she rejected a plea bargain offered by prosecutors in which they would have dropped the two reckless endangerment charges -- misdemeanors that carry five-year prison terms on conviction -- and asked for a suspended sentence on the midwifery charge.

As part of the deal, Ms. Hunter would have had to agree to stop practicing midwifery.

To the few lay midwives who openly practice in Central Maryland, the prohibition is a turf battle with traditional health care providers.

"I believe a woman needs to give birth where she feels safe and comfortable," Ms. Hunter, a minister of the nondenominational Church of Inner Wisdom, said shortly after her arrest. "Birth is a natural process. It is best when it is left alone."

The head of the state's nursing board disagrees with that assessment and has said the state's ban on lay midwifery is well founded.

In an interview in January, Mrs. Morgan said she didn't believe she was at any greater risk with Ms. Hunter than she would have been giving birth in a hospital.

"My husband and I will both do everything we can to support her," Mrs. Morgan said. "We came to her, we knocked on her door."

Ms. Hunter's trial is set July 10.

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