As we enter or leave this world, there are those seldom-thanked individuals that accompany us. We spoke to people who think and talk about living and dying every day


Midwife

Talk about “midwifery” to an American, and they will start thinking about antiquated methods of childbearing. Midwives were gradually replaced by physicians from the 1930s onwards, as women started to give birth in hospitals rather than at home. In Austria, midwives are fully fledged professionals, essential to the public healthcare system.

“We’re not all crotchety old hunchbacked witches,” says midwife Katharina Laimer, a fresh-faced woman of 28. She is especially qualified to make this claim, having written her bachelor’s thesis on the history of midwifery in Europe.

The profession in Austria is backed by a strong and heavily regulated trade union (Hebammengremium). Austrian law requires midwives to be present at every regular birth. They bear the main responsibility for delivering the children, and regular doctors only enter the picture if there are complications.

Cesarean sections and epidural injections, which can only be performed by physicians, are much more common in the U.S. Laimer points out that such measures are taken here only when absolutely necessary because they increase the risk of something going wrong.
For Laimer, handing over control to the doctors for interventions like Cesarean sections is perhaps the most difficult aspect of the job. “I find myself struggling inside a bit every time,” she admits.

In the end, it’s the doctor who has to make the call, but as the one who is on the front line the most, it is not always easy for her to relinquish control.

There’s an old saying: ‘For midwives, giving birth is either a breeze or a C-section, with every additional complication imaginable.’ I guess sometimes we just ­know too much.

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Janima Nam is a freelance journalist, translator, and editor living in Vienna. She has a BFA in film from New York University and a Masters degree (MA) from the London Consortium in Interdisciplinary Studies.