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In the UK the most influential male midwife was probably the Scottish surgeon William Smellie. He improved the design of forceps and in 1754 wrote and published a bestselling practical midwifery handbook called, A sett of anatomical tables, with explanations, and an abridgment, of the practice of midwifery, with a view to illustrate a Treatise on that subject, and Collection of cases.
Despite this, in the UK, men were legally prohibited from practicing midwifery until 1983 when legislation was passed to abolish sexual discrimination. The legal battle for men to enter midwifery faced a lot of opposition. Even now, men make up less than 1% of the midwifery workforce in the UK, according to the Equality and Diversity study by the NMC in July 2011. (Nursing and Midwifery Council, n.d.)
Opinions are still much divided over the acceptance of male midwives. Some people are uncomfortable with the idea of a person of the opposite sex working intimately with them. Others feel they cannot truly understand birth as they can never experience it themselves. Some feel that as long as this person is a professional, their gender shouldn’t matter.
An internet forum poll, started in 2008 and still ongoing, shows that at 46%, almost half of the ladies asked would prefer a female midwife. However 30% would not mind a male and only 24% would be happy to have a male midwife. It would have been interesting to see what the results would be if they also included the option ‘I would refuse a male midwife’. Some of the comments following the poll passionately defend their poll choice. One poster wrote ‘Obviously all male midwives are only there to pull a woman in labour and to have a quick shufty at there bits aren’t they!!....To all those who would decline having a male midwife present to delivery your child would you decline a female firefighter from attending a call to your home?’ While another says ‘I was induced and my final induction was by a male midwife....he made a comment which has never sat easy with me- ‘you live back and think of England, i will think of fishing’....it was a very uncomfortable induction and examination which has make the whole experience unpleasant.... I think in parenting classes they should tell you if your local hospital has any male midwifes and what your rights are i.e if you are not comfortable.’
I don’t think either of these women are any more right or wrong than the other. At the end of the day it comes down to personal preference and opinion. All women should feel comfortable to exercise the right to ask for another midwife if they don’t feel comfortable with the one they are allocated. It shouldn’t matter whether that is because of the attitude of the professional or their gender. At the end of the day, a woman needs to be able to feel as comfortable as she can while in labour. If her healthcare provider(s) cannot make her feel comfortable, for whatever reason, I see no reason why she can’t ask for a replacement (providing staffing levels allow this).
The closest I have come to this debate would likely be smear and sexual health tests. Yes I know this is nothing like labour but it is my only experience of health professionals in my private areas. I have had these performed by both male and female NHS workers. For me, my level of confidence and ability to relax depended entirely on the personality of the professional, not their gender. Yes, when I was being examined by a male, often a female member of staff would be present as a chaperone. But as long as I felt that they knew what they were doing and that they themselves were relaxed and confident, I was happy.
So what do you think? Would you be comfortable with a male nurse or midwife attending you? Do you feel a person must have gone through childbirth to make a good midwife?
Personally I fully support male midwives and nurses, just as I do female doctors and surgeons. I also feel that having been through the experience of birth does not make you a ‘better’ midwife. Just as being a mechanic or an F1 driver doesn’t make you a ‘better ‘driver. Yes you have a different set of experiences but that doesn’t mean they are better or worse, just different. The same goes for a midwife who hasn’t given birth herself. Yes a mother has experienced giving birth, but each birth and each mother is different so the women in your care could have an experience vastly different to your own. What is most important in my eyes is having the wellbeing of the mother, baby and family at the centre of your work. It doesn’t matter if you are black, white, mixed race, catholic, Muslim, Buddhist, gay, straight, male or female, the healthcare of the women and her wishes comes first. If that mother wants another healthcare professional, that is her choice and her right.
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