Midwife Liz Catlin sentenced to probation, community service

John Christensen
The Chronicle Express

PENN YAN, NY — After three years of prosecution in a 95-count indictment that included criminally negligent homicide and falsifying business records, midwife Elizabeth Catlin, 56, of Penn Yan, was relieved to hear her sentence in Yates County Criminal Court Monday, Dec. 12. 

A plea agreement was struck in September for Catlin to plead guilty to a single count of unauthorized practice of a profession. In exchange, the District Attorney's Office agreed to drop all remaining charges against her. 

In court Monday, County Judge Jason L. Cook sentenced Catlin to five years of probation, with credit for the one day in jail she served after her arrest by State Police in 2018, and 250 hours of community service. No fine or restitution were assessed, and certain standard conditions unrelated to her plea were deleted from her terms of probation. 

The criminally negligent homicide charge stemmed from the October 2018 death of a baby born after Catlin transported a laboring woman in her care to F.F Thompson Hospital in Canandaigua. The baby was born there, but died on the way to Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester.

Catlin, 56, of Penn Yan is a certified professional midwife, a professional title recognized in 30 states — but to legally practice midwifery in New York, a midwife must be a certified nurse midwife or a certified midwife, both which require a graduate degree.  

Attorney Michael Sussman and midwife Liz Catlin, center, are greeted with applause from her supporters outside the courtroom where she was sentenced to 5 years probation and 250 hours of community service.

Prior to her plea, Catlin's attorney, Michael Sussman, called the charge baseless. "The midwife did exactly what a midwife is supposed to do, which is transport. She did that, she did it timely and the baby died hours later," he said. "Here the last clear chance was the hospital and the doctors. It seems to me pretty obvious." 

At the plea, Yates County Assistant District Attorney Michael Tantillo said he had spoken with the Mennonite family of the baby who died, who indicated they did not blame Catlin or wish to see her prosecuted. Tantillo referred to Catlin’s motives as “altruistic,” a quote Sussman reminded the court of at her sentencing. 

“This was not an act of civil disobedience,” Sussman stated to the court before sentencing. “It was to meet a very profound community need.” 

Catlin's arrest galvanized hundreds of members of the Mennonite community in and around Yates County, who've relied on her maternity care for years, and generated national attention and support from home birth advocacy groups at a time when births at home have increased and support services for expectant mothers in rural areas have declined. They filled the courtrooms at her hearings and even raised the bail money for her release from jail. 

Home birth advocate Linda Hamilton referred to the debate between hospitalized birth and home birth as a "turf war" in a press conference after Catlin's plea, and called on state leaders to pass the Community Midwifery Bill and "end this dismal time in New York's history." 

Catlin still cannot practice midwifery and is not recognized as a licensed midwife in New York, but she believes that will change. Her supporters have participated in postcard campaigns to urge state leaders to support the Community Midwifery Bill and give midwives like her a path to licensure. 

After completion of her community service, Judge Cook said he will hear Sussman’s petition for a certificate of relief to allow Catlin to obtain her license in New York if the bill passes. That hearing is scheduled for Feb. 22.  

Includes reporting by Katie Sullivan Borrelli