Amish or Mennonite women walking along Atlantic beach shoreline.

Mennonite Midwife Behind Bars

A Case of Overreach Published at National Review

Diminutive, soft-spoken, gray-haired inmate 17204 at Holmes County Jail has been behind bars for over a month. She wears an orange jumpsuit rather than her usual modest blue Mennonite dress. She stays in a cellblock on the second floor. Heavy iron beds, vinyl mattresses, metal sink, and toilet combination. No privacy. Most annoying of all, for this quiet, prayerful 47-year-old are “the blaring TV and the foul language from the girls. I’d appreciate specific prayer concerning that.”

Who is this criminal? Freida M. Miller is a lay midwife. She’s been at it for 17 years, and delivered close to 2,000 babies. She was named Midwife of the Year in 1998 by the Ohio Midwives Alliance. And she has never lost a mother.

For Miss Miller, being a midwife is a vocation. “I think it was born in me. I truly think to be a midwife, you have to have a calling from God. It’s not a job, it’s a ministry.” It must be. She doesn’t charge for her services. Some patients give her a donation. Some can’t afford it. It’s all the same to Freida Miller.

What, then, is her crime? Freida Miller is guilty of saving a life. Nearly a year ago, on December 17, 2001, Miss Miller administered a prescription drug, Pitocin, to Jan Joyal to stop excessive bleeding after the successful home birth of Joyal’s daughter Rebekah. Standard procedure for any midwife or any doctor. But when the bleeding failed to stop, she accompanied Joyal to Joel Pomerene Hospital. There she revealed to the doctor on call that she had administered Pitocin to stop the bleeding. That bit of honesty cost Miss Miller her freedom.

If she had lived in one of the 19 states that officially recognize midwives (and hence allow them to administer Pitocin), she would not be in jail now. But the problem is that Ohio does not recognize lay midwives.

It is not that lay midwives are illegal in Ohio, mind you. They are quite legal. This is Amish and Mennonite country, and homebirthing is part of their simple, Christian, rural way of life. In Holmes County, where she is incarcerated, one in eight births was a homebirth last year. The problem is that there is simply no law on the books in Ohio that regulates lay midwives. So, there’s no regulatory body to which Miller and other midwives could go to get permission to carry and administer Pitocin.

Here’s the nasty catch-22. Without Pitocin, midwives like Miller would be guilty of endangering their patients’ lives. But technically, Pitocin is a prescription drug that can only be administered by qualified medical personnel. What’s an Ohioan midwife to do?

It is not even that Pitocin is dangerous. According to Faith Gibson, executive director of the American College of Domiciliary Midwives, “Pitocin, when administered in a postpartum situation (i.e., after the baby is born) is one of the safest drugs in the world, in fact safer than aspirin.” Gibson fired off a letter in support of Miss Miller, commending her actions on behalf of her patient as exemplary midwifery. “Frivolous prosecutions of midwives are detrimental to the practical well being of mothers and babies.”

Even more ironic, is that there is actually a state bill, HB 477, ready and waiting to clear up the whole problem. This bill fulfills the 1998 recommendation of a special study council set up by the Ohio’s general assembly that “the practice of midwifery be legal in Ohio and that any ambiguity in the law on this issue be resolved to prevent prosecution of either direct-entry midwives [i.e., lay midwives] or parents who choose to use direct-entry midwives.”

According to bill sponsor Rep. Diana Fessler (R., New Carlisle), a former lay midwife, the silence of the law is dangerous. “Although current state law includes a provision governing certified nurse-midwives, the law does not address the practice of midwifery by non-nurse midwives. As a result, non-nurse midwives continue to be concerned that an overzealous prosecutor could charge them with practicing medicine without a license.”

They have good cause for concern. Freida Miller met not only an overzealous prosecutor, but an equally overzealous judge. Prosecuting Attorney Stephen Knowling and Holmes County Common Pleas Judge Thomas D. White have nailed her with felony charges of Unauthorized Practice of Medicine and Possession of Dangerous Drugs. When Miss Miller refused to name the source from whom she got the Pitocin, Judge White sent her to jail, and he shows no sign that he is going to let her out — unless she’ll squeal.

Even more maddening, Freida admitted not really understanding the illegality of her possession and use of this harmless drug. All she knew was that saving a life was her sacred duty as a midwife. Witness the court transcripts from her original hearing on May 1, 2002.

JUSTICE WHITE: “Did you understand that that [administering Pitocin] was a violation of Ohio law?”

MILLER: “Kind of. I should have understood. I should have checked it out better.”


MILLER: “But I will bow my idea to a better one.”

JUSTICE WHITE: “In your opinion was that necessary to save her life?”

MILLER: “If we wouldn’t have made it to the hospital fast enough, yes. We might have been able to make it to the hospital fast enough, but it would have been taking a chance.”

Commenting in a later interview, Miller said “I didn’t really know it was illegal…I wish I would have never used the stuff….If I wasn’t sure it was illegal, I’m not sure that I’m guilty….I don’t really know what the allegations are about; they’re not specific enough.”

Is she angry about the seeming injustice? “The whole thing is something God knows all about and he has a plan,” she says. “I don’t want to fight for anything, I just want to fit myself into God’s plan, and I’m not angry at anybody.”

But others are. It is very difficult not to be angry at a judge and prosecutor who are going after this sweet, holy, and harmless midwife as if she were guilty of peddling cocaine at the local playground. What drives the seemingly unbalanced fervor with which they have gone after this beautiful and beloved Mennonite midwife?

The fervor appears to have driven Judge White and company to extend their powers into legally gray areas. On August 28, 2002, the Holmes County Health Department arrived at the home of Freida Miller and confiscated over 50 of her client records. After hundreds of supporters of Miller showed up to pray at the courthouse, Judge Miller threatened Miss Miller with a stiffer penalty if they should dare to do so again.

He could use a crash course in democracy.

One suspects the judge has some power issues. Unfortunately, in the last election — which occurred while Miss Miller was in jail — Judge White ran unopposed.

Meanwhile, my wife, who is almost seven months pregnant, is without a midwife. We’re hoping Freida will be free by then.

— Benjamin Wiker, a fellow at the Discovery Institute, is the author of Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists.

Benjamin Wiker

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Benjamin Wiker holds a PhD in Theological Ethics from Vanderbilt University. A Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, he has taught at Marquette University, St. Mary's University (MN), and Thomas Aquinas College (CA), and Franciscan University of Steubenville.