Midwives never get much respect, especially from doctors. But now the UW's School of Nursing wants to end 19-year-old nurse-midwife training program, judging that it doesn't meet a "societal need."

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Never come between a midwife and a birthing baby.

I learned this firsthand about a decade ago, when my son unexpectedly sprinted to the finish line of his own birth. Our midwife — who was also a nurse at the UW Medical Center — kicked over a trash can and practically bowled me over on her way to catch my son tumbling into the world.

Now I suspect the UW’s School of Nursing is about to get bowled over, too.

Last month, the faculty there recommended eliminating the UW’s 19-year-old midwife training program.

That isn’t surprising on its own. Just about everything is on the chopping block these days.

It was their reasoning. It has angered midwives all over the region. Not to mention thousands of moms.

The nurse-midwife program was judged not to meet a “societal need.” In fact, maternal and newborn health were not even on the list of societal needs drawn up by a UW committee looking to cull programs.

The reaction has been disbelief. Midwives never get much respect, especially from doctors. But now you, too, nurses?

“I’m appalled to know that the No. 1 nursing school in the country doesn’t think that maternal and newborn health is an important societal need,” said Dianna Elkenbaum, an obstetric nurse and UW midwife student.

“It feels like we’re shooting our own” was how one nursing-school graduate described it.

A petition to save the midwife program went up at change.org and immediately got 1,500 signatures, almost all from women.

“We need more midwives, not less, in this overmedicated, overbearing, rule-bound world,” read a typical post.

Nurse-midwives are registered nurses who also are trained as midwives. What makes them so great — why my wife and I used one — is that they’re licensed to work in hospitals. You can try for a more natural, less medicated birth. But you’re in a hospital if something goes wrong.

The UW says it’s only a recommendation. It would have to be adopted by provosts and ultimately the university president.

Surprisingly, this isn’t directly about money. The students in the program pay more in fees than it costs to educate them. Plus midwives are a force that drives down birth-related health costs.

So what’s going on here?

The UW, taken aback by the PR debacle of appearing to diss moms, first sent out 10 “talking points.” This sought to soothe, but never answered the core question. How is it that the health of moms and babies is not a societal need?

“They didn’t ask the public that,” says Michelle Grandy, a UW nurse-midwife. “I think if they did they’d get a very different answer.”

The UW hooked me up with Carol Landis, a professor in the nursing school who helped draft the recommendation. She said it was not an “arbitrary devaluing of midwives.” Driven by state budget cuts, the School of Nursing is reducing the number of areas in which it is teaching- and training-focused (regrettably to her), she said. The emphasis is on high-level research, the kind that brings in grant money.

As you might guess, big grant dollars are hardly raining down on the study of midwifery.

They never meant to imply the health of moms and babies isn’t crucial, Landis said. Only that the “UW may not be as well-situated as other schools to serve that societal need. We are a research-intensive university.”

How about that maternal health didn’t make the UW’s list of what’s important, I asked.

“I might personally agree that that’s ludicrous,” Landis said.

I get that the UW feels forced to streamline. That often leads to these sorts of “return on investment” calculations. But just as pregnancy isn’t an illness — which is why we need more midwives! — natural childbirth will never be the hot growth stock in the medical industry’s portfolio.

To me a word that fits better than “ludicrous” for all this is “sad.”

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.