chapter  9
15 Pages

Dutch difference? The prosecution of unlicensed midwives in the late nineteenth-century Netherlands

Willem de Blécourt
WithWillem de Blécourt Historiography

This rosy representation is now the received opinion, even if its features are occasionally exaggerated. For example, the medical historian Irvine Loudon claimed that:

The Netherlands persisted longer than any other country with a policy of home deliveries by midwives. Hospital deliveries accounted for only 26 per cent of total deliveries in 1957, 33 per cent in 1965, and they were still less than half (47.4 per cent) in 1970.5

A careful check of his sources shows his conclusions to be erroneous because he has confused the statistics concerning place of delivery with those of birth attendants. In 1957, doctors attended 61 per cent of all deliveries, midwives only 38.5 per cent (which is still relatively high, but a far cry from the 74 per cent suggested by Loudon).6 The error arose because Dutch midwives also attended at clinical births and many Dutch medical practitioners helped women in their own homes. In fact, if one considers the professional qualifications of persons attending births to be the most important measure of change, the halfway mark, when midwife-attended deliveries had fallen to 50 per cent of all deliveries, was reached in the Netherlands in the mid-1930s, not the 1970s.7 If Loudon’s American and British figures are to be trusted, it means that the Netherlands reached this watershed even earlier than Britain or the rural parts of the USA. The most significant distinction between Dutch and British mid-wifery, concluded a British Departmental Committee in the 1930s, was the Dutch tendency to send abnormal cases to hospitals. According to these findings the position of the Dutch midwife differed mainly from her British colleagues in that her help was restricted to the birth itself and post-natal care was left to others.8