Unnecessary C-sections Becoming Run-of-the-Mill?

Hospitals all over the country are performing too many cesarean sections, according to Consumer Reports. Elliot Main, M.D., the director of the California Maternal Quality Care Collaborative noted that the high rates of C-sections in hospitals rated poorly by Consumer Reports are “unsupported by professional guidelines and studies of birth outcomes.”

According to Consumer Reports ratings, C-section rates vary dramatically, even between hospitals that are close together. In the same community, rates of C-sections for pregnant women who have not had a C-section previously, have not delivered prematurely, and are pregnant with a single baby—typically considered to be low-risk deliveries—can range from 11 percent to 55 percent, with overall rates nationwide ranging from 4 percent to 57 percent. This news is troubling, as C-section is a major surgery, requiring a 6-inch abdominal incision and another incision through the uterus.

The risks of unnatural birth

“C-sections increase the risk of mortality and complications,” according to Kent Heyborne, MD, the chief of obstetrics at Denver Health Medical Center, the hospital with the lowest C-section rate of any of the 22 hospitals surveyed by Consumer Reports. “We’re just now becoming aware of the downstream effects.” After undergoing a C-section, 19 percent of women have reported pain at the incision site as being a major problem in the two months following delivery—and that the pain lasted six months or longer—according to Listening to Mothers III, a national survey cited by Consumer Reports. For vaginal births, 11 percent of women reported a painful perineum as being a major problem.

While life-threatening complications are not common from C-sections or vaginal births, healthy, low-risk women were more likely to suffer serious complications, including severe bleeding, blood clots, heart attack, kidney failure, and major infections, than were women who gave birth vaginally, according to a 14-year Canadian study cited by Consumer Reports. Vaginal delivery is also better for most babies, who have been shown to be “slightly less prone to chronic ailments such as asthma, allergies, or obesity, perhaps due in part to a protective effect from beneficial bacteria transferred from the mother during birth.”

Why the rise in C-sections?

In the U.S., the number of C-sections performed is up 500 percent since 1970, and the “infant death rate in the U.S., while low, is higher than that of most other industrialized nations.” Maternal death rates have also increased slightly. Consumer Reports attributes these “grim statistics” in part to the fact that women giving birth in America currently tend to be older and heavier when beginning their pregnancies. Also to blame is the reportedly outdated belief that longer labors can lead to complications.

The main problem, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows, “is a health care system that no longer values normal birth and focuses on scheduling labor, in part for patient and doctor convenience.” The level of control needed to schedule births requires interventions like inducing labor prior to the mother’s due date, increasing the risk of the necessity for C-section. Some may even choose to schedule a C-section in lieu of vaginal birth.