Is Unassisted Childbirth Legal?
By Laura Shanley
It is a little known fact that the majority of babies in the world are born “unassisted” – i.e. without a paid, trained, licensed attendant. Of course, most of those births are occurring in third-world countries where medical services are limited or unavailable. In more developed countries, unassisted childbirth (UC) is rare, but its numbers are on the rise.
The laws surrounding UC vary from country to country and even from state to state. It is rarely legislated against, and even when it is, the laws are rarely enforced. Part of this may be due to the fact that it is almost impossible to prove that a birth was intentionally unassisted (“We tried to get to the hospital but the birth just happened so quickly!”).
In the US, UC is legal in every state except Nebraska where it is a misdemeanor for a father to catch his baby in a non-emergency situation (it doesn’t say anything about the mother catching the baby). However, I’ve known couples who have had UCs in Nebraska and none of them have been hassled.
Still, occasionally I get letters from people who say I’m wrong. According to someone they spoke to at the health department, UC is illegal in their state. When I’ve asked to see the statute, no one has even been able to produce one. The fact is, many people who work for the government don’t know the laws – either that or they misinterpret them. In some states, for instance, it is illegal to have a midwife-attended homebirth, but it’s not illegal to have an unassisted homebirth (much to the chagrin of some midwives).
Concerning the laws outside the US, I’ve heard that some European countries frown on UC. A couple in France had legal problems as a result of their UC, but much of that was due to the fact that they went to the hospital immediately after the birth – before the woman had delivered the placenta. As I state in my article The Ins and Outs of Birth Certificates, if you’re going to deal with the government, it’s best to wait until the baby is several weeks old. A lot of people believe that newborn babies need medical attention, in spite of the fact that nothing is wrong with them. The same can be said for women who have just given birth.
When couples approach me and are nervous about the legal issues surrounding UC, I always tell them this: Just as you believe you will have a safe birth, you must also believe you will not have problems afterwards. If there is anything I have learned from having UC’s it’s that I am more powerful than any government official. If you believe you are safe, you are.
Many thanks to Ana Alvarez Casanova for allowing me to use her photo.