Birth center fights back against DHEC, lawmakers

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) - Fifteen days or else: that's the message from the state's Department of Health and Environmental Control to the Charleston Birth Place if it doesn't comply with redefined state legislation.

The legislation was written more than 21 years ago. The wording is still the same, but state officials say the interpretation is what's different.

Before, midwives could contact a doctor by phone for assistance. Now, the state requires a doctor to be onsite during operating hours.

Elizabeth Hair-Ostrella is one of many women who have given birth at Charleston Birth Place. She says it kept her from the one thing she never wanted.

"I genuinely believe if I had not gotten care through Charleston Birth Place, I would've ended up with a C-section," she said.

But now a re-interpretation of the law puts the very place that gave her comfort on rocky ground.

"This is where moms will labor a lot of times. I delivered my child in the bed. Sometimes women will labor in the tub and birth in the bed, or birth where ever they are comfortable," said Angela Tharnish.

Thanks to a difference in definition, the same may not be offered to moms next in line.

"They are asking to have a physician who is available to come physically to the birth center at any time we are in business," said Lesley Rathburn, owner of Charleston Birth Place.

The law as it stands now has called for an on-call doctor, but until recently that did not mean a doctor had to be at the facility. It simply meant that a doctor had to be available in the event of any complications.

"If we have a mom who needs a C-section, it doesn't do us any good to bring the doctor here. We don't have an operating room; we need to go where the operating room is," Rathburn said.

It's a change that puts expectant mothers like Stacy Alberico scrambling for a new birth place.

"I will find a back-up plan if I have to - deliver at a hospital or find a midwife that can potentially do another birth," she said. "But realistically, my due date is Dec. 5."

For Alberico, it's a race against the clock.

The Charleston Birth Center now has an attorney and plans to file an injunction to get a stay on the suspension of the center's state license.

Officials there also plan to write an improved bill that would update the regulations on birthing centers across the state.

"We are protecting both the unborn and their mothers while also enforcing the law," said DHEC Director, Catherine Templeton. "We will not waiver."