What if there were no C-sections? What if that simply wasn’t an option? Do you think doctors would practice differently? I do.
No one discounts that C-sections can be beneficial, saving the lives of mothers and/or babies. However, our country is currently experiencing its highest C-section rate, with maternal mortality increasing right alongside the C-section rate (not saying necessarily that it’s causative; however, if these C-sections were life-saving to the mother, one would expect the maternal mortality rate to be decreasing or at least staying the same), and perinatal mortality not doing that much better either. [If you want some state-by-state breakdowns, Jill at the Unnecesarean has compiled several, with the most recent one being California.] Most people agree that the C-section rate is too high, and could safely be brought down. There are many factors going into the increase incidence — some of which may be valid and beneficial reasons, but others that are not.
Carla Hartley recently wrote a note in which she cleared up some misconceptions that have apparently been told about her and “what she believes.” Among other things, it appears that some have said that she thinks midwives ought not take Pitocin with them to home births (for postpartum hemorrhage). She said (paraphrasing), “But what if you as a midwife had no Pitocin in your bag? Would that change your practice style? Knowing that you didn’t have that as a backup, would you be less tempted to act in a way that might cause a postpartum hemorrhage?” That’s food for thought.
Taking this out of the birth realm, we see that when there is a safety net, it changes people’s behavior — how many of you would walk across a tightrope without a safety net below? Some do; but far fewer people would risk crossing if they knew that there was a real risk of death, as opposed to a slight risk of death and a real likelihood of safely bouncing on a net if they fell. There are always adventurous people, daredevils, pushing the envelope — doing things that are dangerous or downright deadly, just because they can. But most people only do something if they think or know that there is a reasonable chance for them to succeed and come back alive.
In another, much more mundane vein, we see banks and other companies loaning people money for various reasons, including education, buying a house, buying a car, etc. The more collateral you put up, the more they’ll lend you; the more you earn, the more they’ll give you; or if the government guarantees that they’ll pay the loan should you default or die, they’ll gladly loan you the money you ask. Why? There really isn’t that much risk involved, if the government is the guarantor; and the risk to the lender is dramatically lowered if you have something valuable that they can take if you can’t pay your bills. It’s a safety net for them.
Back to birth — I wonder how it would affect doctors’ practice style if they knew that there was no “safety net” of a quick, easy, safe Cesarean. I’m reminded of something one of my email doula friends said — she’s attended hundreds of births, many of which became necessary C-sections, but none of which were necessary at the outset of labor. This is not to say that the only time C-sections become necessary during labor is if they were interfered with — sometimes the most natural labors end up requiring C-sections, and sometimes interventions can help preserve a vaginal birth when otherwise a C-section might be necessary; but frequently, it is the interventions which lead to a C-section then becoming necessary. We all have heard of “Pit to Distress” — the practice of increasing the dosage of Pitocin until the baby is born, or becomes so distressed by the unnatural labor that the doctor then has a reason to call for a “necessary” C-section. What if doctors didn’t have easy access to surgery, in the event the baby was distressed? Do you think they’d be so quick to give Pitocin to a baby that is tolerating labor, just to speed things up? I don’t. It’s relatively easy to say that it’s no big deal if the baby becomes distressed due to X, Y, or Z, because “she can always be given a C-section.” But what if she can’t? Then, if the baby becomes distressed because of something the doctor did, it’s all on him if the baby is injured or dies.
If there were no C-sections, doctors would still be taught how to best manage vaginal breech births and vaginal twin births. I think of one snippet of media coverage I saw in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake. An American woman (probably an OB, maybe not), was attending births in the street “hospital,” and a Haitian woman was in labor. Probably the baby began “crowning,” except that it wasn’t the head, but the rump that was presenting. The American wailed, “It’s breech! I don’t know what to do!!” She had probably never seen a vaginal breech birth before — even assuming she was a trained and practicing obstetrician, she likely was trained in100% C-section for breech, rather than how to safely assist a vaginal breech birth. All well and good for America, with plenty of hospitals and operating rooms, technology and antibiotics — but when the OB is removed from all of that, what skills does she really have to help make birth safe?
If there were no fetal monitors, doctors would not feel safe with administering Pitocin, particularly in high doses, because they would have no way of knowing how the baby was tolerating it. If there were no C-sections available should the baby become distressed, doctors would be more cautious to keep the baby from distress, don’t you think?
I’m afraid that our safety net of technology and interventions has become more of a “trampoline” — rather than being used only to save someone’s life or health in rare events, it is being used on a regular basis, as if it’s meant to be bounced on. And, no, I’m not calling for a complete ban on the use of Pitocin, C-sections, or any other intervention — they have their place. However, if they were reduced only to what was necessary (which we as fallible humans cannot know with 100% certainty which are truly necessary and which are not, so we could not truly reduce the rate of unnecessary intervention to zero; but looking at some things like mortality and morbidity with and without C-sections, and retrospective studies showing that most inductions were not medically necessary [and failed inductions certainly increase the rate of C-sections], we can see that it certainly can be reduced), we would see a very different (and, I think, better) picture in labor and birth, compared to what it is now.
One time my sister was talking to a police friend of ours, and sort of complaining about getting pulled over for speeding tickets. [At the time, she did have a "cop magnet" -- a sweet little black T-top Thunderbird.] And our friend said, “Always drive like there’s a cop behind you.” That’s good advice, isn’t it? We often don’t — relying on radar detectors just to keep from getting caught; but if we drove safely and cautiously, within the speed limit, and obeying all laws, we’d likely never get a traffic ticket, and we’d reduce the likelihood that we’d end up in an accident. Maybe if doctors, midwives, and nurses would “practice like there are no C-sections,” we’d be able to safely reduce the C-section rate much closer to the minimum necessary.