Midwives and the assault on scientific evidence

The new mantra of midwives and their advocates is “evidence based practice.” Lamaze, the childbirth education organization has changed the name of their blog to “Science and Sensibility” emphasizing the importance of science and promising:

Lamaze education and practices are based on the best, most current medical evidence available, and can help reduce the overuse of unnecessary interventions while improving overall outcomes for mothers and babies.

But midwives and childbirth educators like Lamaze have a problem. The scientific evidence often conflicts with their ideology. They could address this problem in several ways. Midwives could modify their specific ideological beliefs on the basis of scientific evidence. Childbirth educators could question whether ideology has had an inappropriate impact on the promulgation and validation of their recommendations. Both those approaches would involve a threat to cherished beliefs. They, therefore, have taken a different approach. They’ve tried to justify ignoring scientific evidence.

As midwives Jane Munro and Helen Spiby have documented in The Nature and Use of Evidence in Midwifery, the first chapter of their book Evidenced Based Midwifery, midwives were initially enthusiastic about basing clinical practice on scientific evidence. That’s because they had long told each other that midwifery was “science based” while obstetrics was not:

At the beginning of the evidence based practice movement, much of the midwifery profession responded enthusiastically to the potential for change… Evidence based practice was seen to be offering a powerful tool to question and examine obstetric-led models of care that had dominated the previous decades. The results of such examination could have meant ‘starting stopping’ the unhelpful interventions that had embedded themselves in common practice …

But it turned out that obstetrics had been based on scientific evidence all along and it was midwifery that ignored the scientific evidence in favor of ideology. Indeed, almost all practices exclusive to midwifery (as opposed to copied from obstetrics) have never been tested. They might be valuable; they might be useless; they might even be harmful. No one bothered to check before implementing them because they were based on ideology.

It has been quite a shock to midwives and childbirth educators to learn that most of their own practices have never been scientifically validated. Even worse, much of their critique of modern obstetrics flies in the face of the existing scientific evidence. As Munro and Spiby explain:

… [S]ome midwives have not been so enthusiastic [about evidence based practice], viewing the drive to create and implement evidence as a threat to their clinical freedom.

In other words, cherished ideological beliefs conflict with scientific evidence. Thus began the attack on scientific evidence.

As a first approach, midwives and childbirth educators have rejected the definition of evidence. As defined by Sackett, the founder of evidence based practice, it is “the conscientious, explicit and judicious use of current best evidence in making decisions about the care of individual patients.” That sounds objective, and evidently, objectivity is a problem. They have attempted to solve that problem by insisting that evidence can only be defined in context. “Context” in this case really means “ideology.”

Scientists see the ideology free nature of scientific evidence as one of its strengths and therefore privilege it as the ideal form of evidence. But Lomas, writing about midwifery critics of evidence, explains that they reject this privileged status:

[I]t is important that context evidence should not be viewed as any less ‘scientific’. They advocate moving forward from the epistemological argument about what is ‘best evidence’ towards a ‘balanced consensus’ …

The use of the word “consensus” is illuminating. Evidence can only be evidence if it includes the opinions of midwives and childbirth educators, whether those opinions are based on science or not. Indeed, the scientific facts are merely one aspect of evidence. “Social science oriented research” and “the views of stakeholders” are supposed to have equivalent weight.

Such is the genesis of midwifery papers like Wickham’s Evidence Informed Midwifery, and, my personal favorite, Parrat and Fahy’s Including the nonrational is sensible midwifery. When the evidence does not support your claims, the use of adjuncts, including nonrational ones, will justify any beliefs.

The Parrat and Fahy paper is particularly instructive on this point. Their central claim is that the inclusion of the non-rational is midwifery “enhances safety”:

When the concept of ‘safety’ is considered in childbearing it can illustrate how insensible rationality can be and how negative consequences can occur. Safety is an abstract concept because it is difficult to define and can only be considered in general terms. Rational dichotomous thought, however, provides ‘safety’ with the following defining boundaries:

– ‘safe’ has a precise opposite called ‘unsafe’,
– every situation/person/thing must be either be safe or unsafe,
– a situation/person/thing cannot be both safe and unsafe,and
– it is not possible for a situation/person/thing to be anything
other than safe or unsafe.


…What is deemed as safe is aligned with what is rational and what is unsafe is aligned with what is irrational. As irrationality is not acceptable this essentially forces the definition of safety to be thought of as ‘true’ even though it may not fit with personal experience and all situations… As the standard birth environment is the medicotechnical environment of the hospital this is presumed to be the safest. Its ‘opposite’, the home environment, is therefore rationalised to be unsafe. To argue otherwise would define the rational person as irrational… In the purely rationalist way of thinking there is no other option except to consider that honouring the nonrational variabilities of individual bodily experience is irrational and unsafe.

The authors end with a flourish of outright stupidity:

For example, when a woman and midwife have agreed to use expectant management of third stage, but bleeding begins unexpectedly, the expert midwife will respond with either or both rational and nonrational ways of thinking. Depending upon all the particularities of the situation the midwife may focus on supporting love between the woman and her baby; she may call the woman back to her body; and/or she may change to active management of third stage. It is sensible practice to respond to in-the-moment clinical situations in this way…

This paper is but one example of a disturbing trend: many midwives and childbirth educators use the term “scientific evidence” merely as a rhetorical device, in the same way that creationism and other form of pseudoscience use the term “scientific evidence.” As Coker details in his article Distinguishing Science and Pseudoscience:

Pseudoscience appeals to the truth-criteria of scientific methodology while simultaneously denying their validity.

Similarly, midwives and childbirth educators invoke the criteria of scientific methodology while simultaneously insisting that their personal beliefs matter as much if not more.

Posted in: Obstetrics & gynecology

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