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Male nurse midwife adopts a supportive attitude

Tuesday, March 27, 2001

By Christopher Snowbeck, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When Patrick Thornton was considering a career as a nurse midwife in the early 1990s, he asked himself whether the world really needed more men delivering babies.

Nurse midwife Patrick Thornton (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)

Having worked for years as an obstetrics nurse, Thornton saw first-hand how a "masculine, patriarchal mind set" held sway over ob-gyn care in ways he believes wrongly takes control from pregnant women.

But he decided to pursue a midwifery career anyway, deciding that his gender was less important than his philosophy.

"I think we need more people delivering babies who view it as a natural process and really support women in that process," said Thornton, 43. "The medical, hospital orientation tends to hand control to the professionals and encourages women in the belief and attitude that they need only follow the directions of the professionals and everything will be OK ... The medical orientation is the same for women doctors as it is for men doctors."

Thornton has been in practice in Regent Square for a little more than a year, but he's still one of very few men in a profession that has been dominated by women. The title "midwife" might seem to exclude men, but the term simply means "with woman," a role that Thornton believes men can responsibly play.

Thornton first witnessed a childbirth about 19 years ago after he agreed to fill in as Lamaze coach for a friend. Ever since, he's worked toward a career in the birthing business. After graduating from the University of Akron in 1988, Thornton worked for seven years as a hospital labor and delivery nurse. He graduated from midwifery school in 1994 and started working the next year as a midwife in West Virginia.

Thornton was the only male midwife in both the private practice and birthing centers where he worked in West Virginia. His gender wasn't an issue for most patients, but a few seemed reluctant about him.

"I think a lot of people expected that because I was a man, they were going to be treated like a doctor treats them," Thornton said. "When they found out that wasn't true, then that seemed to help."

Thornton came to Pittsburgh in 1999 and joined a medical practice that included another midwife. That practice closed shortly after he arrived, however, and he decided to open his midwifery practice in December of that year. Thornton says he has a few hundred clients who see him for routine gynecological care and, thus far, has attended 12 deliveries in his time here. He hopes to deliver six births per month.

"A lot of people come here disappointed with ... care they've received, and they've been disappointed whether they receive it from a man or a woman," Thornton said. "They come here because they're looking for a different orientation and most of them are not that concerned about gender."

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