It would be hard to find anyone who doesn’t think the cesarean rate is too high.  The World Health Organization says that a 15% rate “is not a target to be achieved but rather a threshold not to be exceeded.”  Healthy People 2020 goals (see section MICH-7) target reductions in primary cesareans and increases in vaginal birth after cesarean (VBAC) as two primary goals in maternity care. In some situations, the benefits of a cesarean far outweigh the risks, but when the surgery is not needed, it has the small but significant potential to cause severe complications for the woman and her baby, and also affects the woman’s subsequent pregnancies.

Cesareans have many advantages for doctors.  The payment for attending a cesarean is equal to or greater than attending a vaginal birth.  While even a fast vaginal birth generally takes at least several hours from the time the woman arrives at the hospital,  performing a cesarean takes about an hour.  Cesareans are not risk-free, but the outcomes are predictable.  And scheduling a cesarean is particularly lucrative and convenient for doctors because they can avoid conflicts with office hours and family/leisure time.

surgery cartoon

Dr. Jonathan Weinstein of Frisco Women’s Health, whose cesarean rate is under 15%, offers the helpful list, Top Ten Signs Your Doctor is Planning to Perform an Unnecessary Cesarean Section on You:

  1. Arrives to L&D immediately after office hours and says, “I just don’t think this baby is going to fit”
  2. Third Trimester, Routine Office Visit, “I think this is going to be a big baby you should just have a C/S” – Did you know? ACOG has very specific guidelines for when it is appropriate to offer a patient an elective C/S for MACROSOMIA (fancy word for large baby). ‘Prophylactic (elective) cesarean delivery may be considered for suspected fetal macrosomia with estimated fetal weights greater than 5,000 gms (11 pounds) in women without diabetes and greater than 4,500 gms (9.9 pounds) in women with diabetes.
  3. “We should induce at 39 weeks your baby is getting too big” – Did you know? According to ACOG, ‘Induction of labor at least doubles the risk of cesarean delivery without reducing shoulder dystocia (rare situation where baby’s shoulder can get stuck at delivery) or newborn morbidity(complications). Suspected fetal macrosomia is not an indication for induction of labor, because induction does not improve maternal or fetal outcomes.’
  4. Performs routine ultrasounds at end of pregnancy to see how big your baby is. Did you know? Ultrasounds at the end of the pregnancy can be 1-2 pounds off. Ask some VBAC patients who were talked into a C/S for this, then had a vaginal delivery of a bigger baby the next time.
  5. “You have a positive herpes titer (or history of herpes); the baby will get it if you deliver vaginally.” Try some Valtrex for the last month of the pregnancy that is pretty much standard of care now. It prevents outbreaks and allows for a normal vaginal delivery.
  6. “Your baby is breech you need to have a C/S” Ever heard of or performed an External Cephalic Version? It really does work.
  7. “You have pushed for 2 hours” (with an epidural that prevents you from feeling anything so you are probably not pushing effectively; this is evident on exam because the baby’s head is still perfectly round, but you do not need to know that) it’s just not going to come out.”
  8. “I scheduled you for an induction at 39 weeks, it is just soooo… much more convenient for you!” (and so much higher risk of ending in a C/S, especially if you are not dilated when you start the induction). At least 80% of my VBAC patients were induced the previous pregnancy. For whose convenience was the induction?
  9. First Visit (7 weeks), “Congratulations you are having twins. I will go ahead and schedule your C/S at 38 weeks, but don’t worry if you go in to labor early I will cut you right away!” Translation, “I am scared out of my mind for you to deliver your babies vaginally because I am not trained on what to do when the second baby is coming, plus it pays more to cut you open. Oh yeah, I don’t have that great a rapport with you because I only spend 2 minutes (fundal height, heart beat and ‘I’ll see you next time’) with you each visit, so I am afraid I will be sued for trying to do the right thing.” (note from Human with Uterus: planned cesarean for twins is not evidence based.)
  10. First Pelvic Exam in Office (7 weeks), “Hmm, your pelvis is pretty narrow”
  11. Bonus Tip: 38-week visit, “Your blood pressure is a little up today you are probably developing preeclampsia or toxemia. That can cause you to have a SEIZURE! The treatment is to deliver the baby. You need a Cesarean Section this is the quickest way to resolve it. Let’s get you up to L&D NOW!” Translation – Preeclampsia or Pregnancy Induced High Blood Pressure is a pain in the butt. If I induce you, it could take 24 hours or more and then I would have to manage your blood pressure, and put you on Magnesium. This is way too inconvenient. Do not worry you can try to have the baby vaginally next time. Yeah right!

For more information on cesarean/induction for “big baby,” see this post from Evidence Based Birth.

Despite reports that cesareans are performed at maternal request, only about 1% of primary cesareans were requested by the woman.  As a woman cannot perform a cesarean on herself, the skyrocketing rate must be driven by providers.  Providers also say that high cesarean rates are driven by liability concerns. A connection between liability environments and cesarean rates exists, but the effects are small.  A natural experiment in Texas, which underwent tort reform, showed that reductions in liability did not lead to corresponding changes in cesarean rates–cesarean rates went up at roughly the same rate as they did in the rest of the country.  Texas cesarean rates are currently 35.3%, higher than the national average.

We might also generally question the ethics of performing a surgery that is in the best interest of the doctor, not the woman and her child.  When a doctor recommends a risky procedure such as major abdominal surgery, women should always ask for references to evidence (meaning documents they can read, not off-the-cuff statistics).  A woman’s care should be a process of shared decision making, not following someone else’s orders.  A woman’s humanity demands nothing less.