Too many pregnant Kentuckians and their babies lack access to care. Midwives say they could help.

As deaths from pregnancy rise in U.S., ‘maternity care deserts’ stretch across rural areas

BY: SARAH LADD (Kentucky Lantern)

During three of her four pregnancies, Laura Browning drove three hours round-trip past hospitals to get prenatal care from midwives in Lexington, the only place that offered what she needed. 

She even made the trip while in labor with her first baby, feeling that “the care that I was receiving” from the midwives “was worth that risk” of birthing in her car. 

As deaths from pregnancy rise in the United States, Browning and other advocates say Kentucky could fill gaps in prenatal care by educating and certifying more midwives, attracting more to the doula profession and encouraging the creation of freestanding birth centers in the state.  

The shortage of care for pregnant people is documented in a recent March of Dimes report, “Nowhere To Go: Maternity Care Deserts Across the U.S.”  

More than 2 million Americans, most of them rural, live in “maternity care deserts,” defined in the report as having no hospitals providing obstetric care, no birth centers, no obstetrician/gynecologist and no certified nurse midwives.” 

In 2021, 14.2% of mothers received inadequate prenatal care, says March of Dimes, which gave Kentucky an F on its annual report card this year, making it one of just nine states plus Puerto Rico to get a failing rating.  

Almost half of Kentucky’s 120 counties — 48% — are maternity care deserts, according to the March of Dimes study.

Prenatal care provided by midwives has been shown to prevent costly complications in mothers and babies, including cesarean deliveries and low birth weights. March of Dimes reports that “midwifery care has been associated with an increased chance of having a low-intervention birth and lower cost of care due to significantly lower odds of medical intervention.” 

Yet only about 8% of births in the U.S. are attended by midwives. In Kentucky, roughly 700-800 babies are born every year outside hospitals and are usually delivered with midwives present. There were 51,688 live births in Kentucky in 2020.

Certified nurse-midwives and certified midwives are accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Midwifery Education (ACME) and pass national exams after graduate-level studies, according to the American College of Nurse Midwives. 

The midwives and midwife students who spoke with the Kentucky Lantern expressed passion for serving their home communities and reported low transfer rates to hospitals, which eases the burden of hospital staffing shortages. 

Mary Harman
 Mary Harmon runs Canary Nest Midwifery in Eastern Kentucky, serving a two-hour radius around Pike County.

Also, midwives can provide important inclusive services to people who are “beyond the binary,” said Mary Harman, the only midwife within a two-hour drive from Pike County who travels that far for clients. 

“Not every person needs an OB-GYN,” they said. Still, Harman said they cannot accept insurance or Medicaid, which is another barrier to their practice, Canary Nest Midwifery.

Research also suggests that freestanding birth centers, which are staffed by midwives and offer holistic birthing options for people who qualify, reduce the cost of care while producing higher patient satisfaction.

Kentucky is in the minority of states that have no freestanding birth centers. The American Association of Birthing Centers reports that more than 384 freestanding birthing centers are operating in 37 states and the District of Columbia, a 97 % increase since 2010. 

Advocates attribute the lack of birthing centers to the difficulty of obtaining the state-required certificate of need in the face of opposition from hospitals that can mount costly legal battles, such as the one waged by three hospitals against a retired Army officer who tried to open a birthing center in Elizabethtown. 

She prevailed in Franklin Circuit Court, which overturned a hearing officer’s denial of a certificate of need, but was forced to give up in 2017 when the hospitals won on appeal.

Rep. Jason Nemes, R-Louisville, has sponsored legislation in the past to remove the certificate-of-need requirement for birthing centers and will continue to support them. He has called the law mandating the certificate “very cumbersome.” 

In 2019, the legislature did take action aimed at licensing more certified professional midwives, after the Kentucky Hospital Association and Kentucky Medical Association dropped their years of opposition.

The results have been underwhelming. In the almost four years since the law was enacted, the number of certified nurse-midwives and certified midwives in Kentucky has increased by only 12 — to 131 providers, reports the American Midwifery Certification Board.

Some hospitals have doula and midwife programs in-house now, such as the University of Kentucky’s midwife clinic and Norton Healthcares doula program.  

Among the barriers to increasing midwifery care in Kentucky is the $1,000 cost of renewing a CPM (Certified Professional Midwife) license. Compare that with $110 in Tennessee, $200 in California or $322 in New York

Earlier this year, Kentucky took advantage of an opportunity in the American Rescue Act Plan to put in place one of the March of Dimes recommendations byincreasing postpartum care under Medicaid from 60 days to 12 months. The change will allow an estimated 10,000 Kentucky mothers to maintain their health coverage for one year after giving birth.

Stark racial disparities in maternal mortality

The March of Dimes reports that deaths from pregnancy are increasing in the United States, which already has one of the highest maternal death rates among high-income countries.

About 900 women in the U.S. died from pregnancy-related issues in 2020, up 14% from 2019 and up a whopping 30% from 2018. Sixty-three percent of pregnancy-related fatalities are preventable, says the report. In Kentucky, preterm births increased in 2021 to 12%, up from 11% in 2020.

Pregnancy is especially dangerous for Black Americans, who are three times more likely to die from pregnancy than their white counterparts. Conversely, white women are more likely to have access to good prenatal care than Native, Black, Pacific Islander, Asian and Hispanic women. 

Meka Kpoh, a doula in Louisville and founder of Black Birth Justice.
 Meka Kpoh, a Louisville doula and founder of Black Birth Justice.

Those stark disparities are not lost on the expectant mothers who turn to doulas to guide them through their pregnancies and births. Doulas provide moral, physical or other support to pregnant people throughout pregnancy, delivery and postpartum. 

Meka Kpoh, a doula in Louisville, founded the nonprofit Black Birth Justice to help mothers and babies get off to a healthy start all the way through the critical postpartum period. She has been in birth work long enough that the March of Dimes report wasn’t news to her. 

She said these gaps in care should be taken seriously. 

“The maternity care deserts aren’t going to just erase themselves,” said Kpoh, who is also in training to be a midwife. “It’s not going to be like next year there’s going to be a new hospital and every community has a hospital at least 30 to 40 minutes away. That’s not going to happen, at least not anytime soon. So it’s really important for there to be options for families like licensed certified home birth midwives.” 

Kpoh said many of the clients she sees are driving hours from rural areas. “It’s really insane to me,” she said, “that we are their only option.” 

In addition to more doulas and midwives, she said Kentucky needs freestanding birthing centers. 

“Pregnant people are driving three hours just to get prenatal care, just to give birth, just to have postpartum appointments,” she said. “It’s ridiculous.” 

To get the kind of care they want, Kpoh said many pregnant people end up facing a difficult choice: “Either they drive three hours to a hospital or they catch their baby by (themselves),” she said, adding: “I don’t recommend that for anyone.” 

Renee Basham, a Kentucky doula who founded Hope’s Embrace.
 Renee Basham, a Kentucky doula who founded Hope’s Embrace.

Renee Basham, a doula, founded the nonprofit community doula program Hope’s Embrace to help pregnant people who are often cut off from help. Basham and her 30 doulas  serve those who are unhoused and those with drug addictions.

“You’re not necessarily treated well if you are by yourself,” said Basham. “And so having people … vouch for you, or speak up for you or remind you to speak up for yourself … all of that … contributes to better outcomes.” 

The stigma of going against the norm

Anihhya Trumbo, a doula who serves the Lexington area, said there remains a stigma about birth outside a hospital. 

“Kentucky is a state where it’s always been preached that doctors know best,” she said. “It’s a bit of a taboo if you go outside of what is … considered the norm here.” 

Anihhya Trumbo is a Lexington-area doula.
 Anihhya Trumbo is a Lexington-area doula.

Doula and midwife-assisted birth isn’t a new thing, either, she said. 

“This is something that’s been going around since the beginning of time,” said Trumbo, who is also a military veteran. “We just got Western medicine and that’s what changed the norm but home birth and having the natural birth — that’s how we got here.” 

Browning was so committed to midwifery care for herself that from six weeks gestation to birth, she drove three hours for her prenatal appointments. She’s now living in Laurel County but lived in Estill at the time of that first pregnancy. 

Already a doula, Browning told the Kentucky Lantern that she is in midwifery school herself now “because women should not have to drive that far for care.”

 “It’s definitely a need that we have here.” 

Sarah Ladd is a Louisville-based journalist and Kentuckian. She has covered everything from crime to higher education. In 2020, she started reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic and has covered health ever since.

This article was republished with permission from the Kentucky Lantern.

Top photo:  Laura Browning, an Eastern Kentucky doula and midwife student, with her four children. Photo courtesy of Laura Browning