The SMH has a series this week going on caesareans – why they are on the increase in Australia, and increasing evidence of their long term riskiness. About 30% of births in Australia are now by c-section. It’s a good series, which points out that as well as appearing to have higher risks of themselves (this BMJ article shows an increased risk of respiratory distress in babies born by c-section and this one shows increased risks to the mothers from c-sections in normal (not breech or cephalic) delivery), c-sections increase the risks of serious complications in subsequent pregnancies.
The series mostly refrains from blaming mothers who are “too posh to push” – previous articles I’ve seen on this topic often simplistically suggest that the issue is that mothers demand c-sections. This opinion piece today is a relatively mild example – starting by talking about mothers demanding a c-section, rather than a natural birth.
In my, admittedly anecdotal, experience, the change in demand is much more nuanced. There are undoubtedly women who demand c-sections. But there are far more women, and medical professionals, who now have a different threshold for considering c-section. The changes are about how we (society at large) view risks, perceived and imagined, and our control over those risks.
The book Paradox of Choice, by Barry Schwartz describes how many people make choices to minimise their regrets, rather than maximise their chance of happiness. It seems to me that if you are on the slippery slope of things starting to go wrong with pregnancy and delivery, if you or your doctor chooses a c-section, you and the doctor can tell yourselves later that you have done everything you can to make things work. At that point, you are part of the universe of all possible women having a natural birth. You are part of a much smaller group which is now at an increased risk of your baby being injured, or something happening to your own body.
As my own doctor said when I asked him what the relative risks were of my various options, “I can tell you all the statistics, but you’ve got to remember that whatever happens, it’s going to be 100% for you”.
My own experience is somewhat illustrative. I’ve had two c-sections. The first was because I had high blood pressure, which was drifting upwards to dangerous levels, and even though I was one week overdue, my Bishop’s score was so low that an induction was highly likely to lead to a c-section anyway. I could have waited longer, but given that my high blood pressure persisted for a week after delivery, there was a reasonable chance that would have damaged my kidneys enough to permanently increase my blood pressure. Thirty years ago, I’d be surprised if I would have had a c-section. And maybe I would have been fine. But maybe Chatterboy or me would have been permanently damaged in some way by the experience. Statistically, I don’t know (and neither does anyone else) whether I should fit in the 50% of c-sections that are probably justified from the statistics, or the 50% that are doctors being overly interventionist.
My second c-section was made more likely by the first – having had one c-section means you can’t induce a subsequent birth (substantially increased risk of uterus rupture) and my blood pressure was high and creeping upwards, with ambiguous liver test results, so that I went for a c-section again. Again, I could have waited for natural labour, or my blood pressure to become unambiguously dangerous, but my doctor and I chose not to.
It’s clear from the literature that any intervention (pain relief, induction through any means, especially drugs) increases the chance of subsequent interventions. And that even after adjusting for the difference in women at Australian public and private hospitals, women in private hospitals generally end up with more interventions, including c-sections.
This article makes a similar point:
“People on higher incomes are more likely to use specialist services and when they do they are more likely to be charged higher fees,” Mr Van Gool said.
“However, if you are a public patient in an obstetric ward you might be primarily seen by midwives, whereas in the private sector you are cared for by the obstetrician – immediately you are dealing with a higher price.”
But there is also a cultural issue at play. Women who have private health insurance are very aware that they have paid for it. They would expect to be able to exercise more control over their experience. And a natural birth is inherently uncontrollable. Intervening by starting an induction, and having early pain relief will provide an illusion of control.
I don’t have any magic solutions, but I do think that our cultural attitudes to acceptable and unacceptable risks and how much control we want have changed substantially in the last 30 years ago, and that has been a big factor in the change in c-section rates. Understanding that will be an important part of making any changes.