LOS ANGELES – Katharine McCall found herself in a tough spot over the Thanksgiving weekend four years ago as she tended to a woman in labor. The student midwife said she was unable to reach a licensed supervisor, so she did what anyone would do in that situation — she delivered the baby.
Her actions and her intentions were contested in a criminal case that concluded Friday in a Los Angeles courtroom, where a judge sentenced McCall to three years of probation. The case raised questions about the practice of midwifery and whether state officials were too aggressive in filing charges against her.
Midwifery has been controversial in the United States because some physicians believe it's unsafe. Ten states prohibit the profession, according to Midwives Alliance of North America. The advocacy group estimates more than 8,000 midwives practice in the U.S.
Brietta Clark, a professor at Loyola Law School, said there's a movement among mothers who want to give birth outside of hospitals. She said she understood why McCall was charged, because the medical board wants to ensure people are receiving safe services and advised properly.
"People don't have a good sense of what complications there may be," Clark said. "The licensing of midwives makes sure people are trained to respect the holistic aspect while having a trained eye."
In McCall's case, a complaint was made to the California Medical Board about a November 2007 delivery in which the baby's shoulder was stuck and the mother suffered a vaginal tear. Although the mother and baby recovered fully, McCall was charged and found guilty last month of one count of practicing medicine without a license.
Superior Court Judge Stephen Marcus said while McCall used very poor judgment and she appeared to be motivated by money, she has had no problems with any other births since she received her license last year.
"Delivering babies is a serious business," Marcus said. "I don't accept that Ms. McCall had a right or an obligation to deliver a baby without a licensed midwife there."
McCall had faced up to three years in state prison, and prosecutors indicated to Marcus they initially were seeking a 16-month term. After consulting with a supervisor, Deputy District Attorney Hubert Yun sought a reduced sentence in which she would serve time in jail and perform community service.
Yun contended McCall never intended to have a licensed midwife deliver the baby and even bragged upon arriving at the pregnant woman's house that she had helped deliver another child without anyone's help.
"She never took responsibility in this case," Yun said. "She has no remorse, your honor. She put two lives at risk during this delivery."
McCall's attorney, Stephen Demik, argued his client tried to get the pregnant woman to go to the hospital when hemorrhaging occurred during the delivery, but that she refused.
Demik, who took the case pro bono, said McCall should have never been charged with a crime.
"This should have been handled administratively" by the state medical board, Demik said.
McCall had a legion of supporters at the sentencing, where the judge noted he received about 25 letters in favor of a noncustodial sentence. A website also was created to support McCall.
After the sentencing, McCall received hugs and well-wishes.
"I am very much relieved," she said.
Her mother, Ellen Gross, said she learned a lot about the legal system during her daughter's case.
"It's made up of laws that are unclear, unfair and misunderstood," Gross said. "I think it's the best possible outcome we could have hoped for."
In addition to probation, McCall must perform 280 hours of community service, pay $10,000 restitution to the medical board and can no longer practice midwifery per the judge's order.
The judge does not have the authority to revoke McCall's medical license. But with McCall's felony conviction, revocation was likely after a future review before the state medical board.
Marcus said he will consider reducing the felony conviction to a misdemeanor if McCall meets the conditions of her probation. That would allow McCall to resume midwifery.
"I hope this ends up working out for you," the judge told McCall. "I hope you get your license back."