by Paul Bowers
A crowd of about 225 people rallied in support of Charleston Birth Place Monday evening. The natural birthing center, located in North Charleston near Trident Hospital, is one of many around the state facing a shutdown by the S.C. Department of Health & Environmental Control.
The protesters, many of whom had given birth at Charleston Birth Place, gathered in the falling cold outside the College of Charleston's Stern Center Monday evening. They shared stories of successful births and took turns on a microphone expressing their disagreement with DHEC, which sent a letter to Charleston Birth Place on Saturday telling the business it had 15 days to comply with DHEC's interpretation of a law requiring that "a physician must be on call and available to provide medical assistance at the birthing center at all times." Charleston Birth Place has had physicians on call via phone since opening in 2007, but now DHEC is demanding that doctors be made available to patients in person at the birthing center.
There were, of course, plenty of clever picket signs at the rally. "Jesus Was Born at the First Birth Center," one read. Another: "Get D-HEC Off My Rights!"
One of the mothers at the rally, Justine Green, says she had two hospital births before having her third child at Charleston Birth Place. "My baby was born faster, my pain level was more manageable, and my postpartum recovery was faster. Just in general, [it was] a complete 180 from my hospital experience. I would never go back to doing it in the hospital," Green says. When she heard about the action DHEC was taking against birthing centers, she says she was upset. "I just feel like there are better ways to spend your time and resources than going after safe places like Charleston Birth Place," she says.
DHEC, for its part, denies that it is reinterpreting state law. "This is NOT a change, but a clarification of the law after the recent investigation at a birthing center in Fort Mill," DHEC spokesperson Lindsey Evans wrote in an e-mail Monday.
Charleston Birth Place has been open for six years without any notice from DHEC that its doctor policy was in violation of state law.
In a letter sent today to the Charleston Birth Place's lawyer, DHEC Director Catherine Templeton provided some clarification on the state regulatory agency's interpretation of the law. "[The ordinance] does not mean that a doctor must sit at the clinic during all hours, but that he or she is available in the traditional 'on call' sense of the word. Traditionally, hospitals and doctors consider 30 minutes to be the outside time for on-call service."
Charleston Birth Place owner and director Lesley Rathbun said last week that she worried DHEC was requiring a doctor to be physically present and sign off on transferring a mother to the hospital any time labor complications arise. (At the time, it remained unclear what, exactly, DHEC wanted, as the agency had gone two months without explaining its demands.) In the letter, Templeton denied that was the case. "It is incorrect and never a position of this agency, official or otherwise, that a midwife must wait for a doctor to assess a patient when the midwife otherwise believes the patient should be transported to the hospital." Templeton also wrote, "I consider it a risk to public health for your client to so obviously and blatantly spread false and dangerous guidance to the midwife community."
Rathbun says she's still unclear on what DHEC wants from her. "It's still really confusing. I am open to meeting with them, and I'd be happy to sit down and talk to them," Rathbun says. "What they need to do is they need to talk to the midwives and the birth centers and the organizations that are already in place ... on how to regulate birth centers, instead of going to physicians and hospitals on how to regulate birth centers. They've yet to come to the experts. We are the experts."