Archives for posts with tag: dignity in childbirth

American Heritage Dictionary (my personal favorite) defines treatment in a medical context as

a. The use of an agent, procedure, or regimen, such as a drug, surgery, or exercise, in an attempt to cure or mitigate a disease, condition, or injury.
b. The agent, procedure, or regimen so used.
Notice the terms cure and mitigate.
If we go back to the dictionary, cure is
a. A drug or course of medical treatment used to restore health: discovered a new cure for ulcers.
b. Restoration of health; recovery from disease: the likelihood of cure.
c. Something that corrects or relieves a harmful or disturbing situation:
and mitigate is
a. To make less severe or intense; moderate or alleviate.
Thus, we should expect that any medical treatment should make us better than we would be without it.  Yet reporting on a systematic review in JAMA,  the New York TImes recently ran a piece called “If Patients Only Knew How Often Treatments Could Harm Them.”
Perhaps in these cases, we might want to reconsider using the term “treatment.”
The JAMA review, “Patients’ Expectations of the Benefits and Harms of Treatments, Screening, and Tests,” concludes
The majority of participants overestimated intervention benefit and underestimated harm. Clinicians should discuss accurate and balanced information about intervention benefits and harms with patients, providing the opportunity to develop realistic expectations and make informed decisions.
But where are patients getting this information?  While some may see advertisements for a handful of drugs, for the most part, patients get information on “treatment” from their doctors.  A commentary on the review suggests limiting advertising and changing product labeling to be more transparent (big thumbs up from me on the second one in particular).  It also says that
[A] physician must first understand the risk herself (or himself) and must then communicate it effectively.  It is not clear that physicians do either of these things well.
Addressing OB care, the JAMA article notes that only 9% of women accurately identified the benefits of a trial of labor after cesarean (TOLAC) over an elective repeat cesarean (ERCS), and only 37% accurately identified risks of a TOLAC. Patients also incorrectly identified the benefits of a fetal abnormality scan (90% overestimated the benefits), and 57% could not accurately identify the risks of amniocentesis.
One of the original articles from the review, Trial of Labor After Repeat Cesarean: Are Patients Making an Informed Decision, states
Women in both groups [TOLAC or ERCS] were insufficiently informed about the risks and benefits of TOLAC and ERCS, particularly women in the ERCS group. Specifically, our patients were not familiar with
  • the chances of a successful TOLAC,
  • the effect of indication for previous cesarean section on success,
  • the risk of uterine rupture,
  • the increased length of recovery with ERCS versus TOLAC
  • the increased risk of maternal death, neonatal respiratory compromise, and neonatal intensive care unit admission with ERCS.

In addition, if our patient felt her provider had a preference, she was more likely to choose that mode of delivery, whereas when patients felt their providers were indifferent or if they were unaware of their providers’ preferences, 50% chose one mode and 50% chose the other.

 Note there is no indication that the women who did not feel the provider had a preference were making their own decisions based on accurate information.
Anecdotal evidence indicates that providers rarely provide accurate information–and sometime provide no information, simply saying, “Let’s schedule your cesarean.”  Some examples:
  • Jessica: I was told I need not waste my time trying to attempt a vaginal birth because it would be another long birth that would ultimately end in another section.
  • Jenerra: “I was always told by my doctors that because I had my first c-section that I would have to keep having them, even though my first c-section was the result of an induction gone wrong.”
  • Kiara: I do believe that [my primary cesarean] was the best outcome for everyone, but I knew that I didn’t want that
    experience again. When I discussed this with my OB, she said ‘Oh, we don’t do VBACs in this practice. When you get pregnant again, we’ll just schedule you like a hair appointment. Easy!’
  • Jamie: [My OB said], “You don’t want to VBAC. You don’t need to tear up your little bottom.”
The JAMA article, which is not focused on obstetric care in particular, does not address other common obstetric “treatments.” For instance, many physicians conduct ultrasounds routinely during pregnancy.  A friend of mine said her doctor never measured her fundal height, instead conducting an ultrasound at every appointment, even though there is no indication that having ANY ultrasounds improves pregnancy outcomes.   Other “treatments” for which women may not be adequately informed of benefits and risks include elective inductions,  Pitocin augmentation, and episiotomies, along with any number of other “treatments” offered in prenatal care, labor, and childbirth.
Women often believe they have no say in these procedures at all, as they are often presented as something that is going to occur rather than a choice that the woman can make.  Unfortunately, though ACOG offers excellent guidelines on informed consent, in practice informed consent is rarely more than a women signing a form that she has no time to read, and informed refusal is never on the table at all.  In fact some recent cases have indicated that in some cases doctors override a woman’s informed refusal, as in the case of Rinat Dray’s forced cesarean and Kelly X’s forced episiotomy.
The New York Times report on the JAMA review states:
This study, and others, indicate that patients would opt for less care if they had more information about what they may gain or risk with treatment. Shared decision-making in which there is an open patient-physician dialogue about benefits and harms, often augmented with use of treatment decision aids, like videos, would help patients get that information.
Unfortunately, shared decision making operates as a buzz phrase rather than a practice most of the time.  Perhaps this uninformed approach to “treatment” is why Marinah Valenzuela Farrell, a certified professional midwife, and president of the Midwives Alliance of North America notes in the New York Times series “Is Home Birth Ever a Safe Choice?” that hospitals carry their own risks.
They just don’t inform you about them.

In February, the New York Times ran six short pieces on home birth in its “Room for Debate” online feature.  I am going to discuss each of the pieces in posts over the next few days.

One of the featured pieces is titled “Home Birth is Not Safe,” written by two doctors who have made a number of anti-home-birth contributions to the medical literature.  Their NYT bio line says,

Amos Grunebaum is the director of obstetrics and Frank Chervenak is the obstetrician and gynecologist-in-chief at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Weill Medical College of Cornell University.

Their work brings up a number of interesting issues to consider about home birth safety, but they also appear to conduct their research with an anti-home-birth agenda–Chervenak has written articles stating that it is unethical for MDs to participate in home births in any way and that it is the professional responsibility of all health workers to forcefully persuade women to birth in hospitals.  All birth data in the United States has limits, but Grunebaum and Chervenak’s use of vital records data to draw sweeping conclusions about home birth outcomes has been broadly criticized (e.g. here, here, and here).

Grunebaum and Chervenak say,

[i]n our research we have found that in the United States at least 30 percent of home births are not low-risk and that two thirds of home births are delivered by midwives who are not properly credentialed.

While I have argued that a woman has the right to birth wherever she chooses, regardless of risk, one might ask why a woman at high risk would choose to give birth at home when she has a hospital as an alternative.  Some women may be compelled to do so for religious reasons (and may not have full control of their choices), but it is also true that some well-educated, well-informed women also make the choice to have high-risk births at home.

Grunebaum and Chervenak acknowledge some of the problems with hospital-based obstetrical care that drive women to seek out home births even when their medical profiles indicate that they may need the kinds of medical interventions that are only available in a hospital-based setting.  They particularly note high numbers of “unnecessary C-sections” and lack of “compassionate care” in hospital births.

They propose as a solution that “the profession [of obstetrics] should strive for home-like hospital births.”

We know from his bio that Chervenak is in charge of the obstetrics unit at NY Presbyterian-Weill Cornell Medical College (NYP-WC).  If women are to shun home birth in favor of hospital birth, a good hospital environment must already be in place.  Let’s take a look at what he and his colleagues are doing to reduce unnecessary C-sections, provide compassionate care, and strive for home-like settings.

New York state now requires hospitals to report certain data, including C-section rates.  NYP-WC’s is 31.6%, a smidge below the national average, but hardly indicative of a culture that is eschewing unnecessary C-sections.  For the last year reported, there were only 38 VBACS at NYP-WC.

NYP-WC’s episiotomy rate is a whopping 25.7%.  Episiotomy is rarely necessary, and this rate is far, far above the home birth rate of under 2%.  According to a 2005 JAMA review by Katherine Hartmann and her colleagues, a national episiotomy rate of less than 15% should be “immediately within reach”–10 years later, NYP-WC is not on board, even though the national rate was already close to 15% by 2010.  Nearby Bellevue Hospital has a rate around 2%.   Compassionate care should not include cutting gashes in women’s vaginas for no reason.

Planned home births are generally attended by midwives.  Both certified professional midwives (who cannot attend hospital births) and certified nurse midwives (who most commonly work in hospitals) subscribe to “The Midwives Model of Care.”  The American College of Nurse Midwives summarizes this philosophy of care on its website–some notable components include:

  • Complete and accurate information to make informed health care decisions
  • Self-determination and active participation in health care decisions
  • Acknowledg[ing] a person’s life experiences and knowledge
  • […] therapeutic use of human presence and skillful communication
  • Watchful waiting and non-intervention in normal processes
  • Appropriate use of interventions and technology for current or potential health problems

Grunebaum and Chervenak brag that “we have a midwife teach our residents at NewYork-Presbyterian.”  However, they do not employ midwives to attend births.  Zero births at NYP-WC are attended by a midwife.  In addition, because they are a teaching hospital, NYP-WC has many births attended by residents whom the woman may not even know.  No one invites complete strangers into their home to attend their births.  Most women who have home births are seeking the Midwives Model of Care, but though Grunebaum and Chervenak acknowledge that CNMs can safely attend hospital births, they choose not to offer this option.

The hospital’s maternity unit has a “Patient and Visitor Guide: During Your Stay” that lays out standard processes and procedures on the unit, gives prospective patients an overview of what to expect, and lays out hospital and maternity unit policies.

The guide begins by saying that the hospital offers “Family Centered Care,” though what this means is not explained other than to say that rooming-in with the baby is encouraged.

They proceed to say that the woman’s care team may involve “your attending obstetrician, who is often your personal obstetrician or the doctor who admitted you, …[and] other medical or surgical specialists, as well as fellows or residents…[and] a pediatrician.”  But that’s just the doctors!  They say that the nursing staff is “constantly present” and indicate that there will be many nurses involved in care.  Other people involved in the hospital birth experience are care coordinators, unit clerks, physician assistants, lactation consultants, social workers, dieticians, nutrition assistants, housekeepers, patient escorts, and volunteers.  There is also a Rapid Response Team for emergencies.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure that many people could fit in my house.

The Labor and Delivery Unit is described as “comfortable, family-friendly, [and] private with soothing natural light.”  The birthing rooms are

spacious and light-filled birthing rooms [that] combine comfort with leading-edge technology. All suites are private and equipped with a special multi-positioned birthing bed, as well as state-of-the-art equipment for monitoring and delivering your baby. Your progress will be monitored regularly throughout labor, and your nurses will help you explore which comfort measures work best for you.

My home has a queen sized bed.  The most leading-edge technology in it is my iPhone.

Then we move on to pain management, and the real trouble starts.  Many women choose home birth because they want to be able to access a wide variety of non-pharmacological pain management strategies.  In my research, a frequent complaint from women who were not interested in epidurals was the pressure from hospital staff to have an epidural.  Here is what the guide says about pain management (emphasis mine):

The intensity of discomfort during labor and delivery varies from person to person. Some women may manage well with relaxation and breathing techniques. However, most women choose some type of pain relief. The majority of women receive analgesia (relief from pain without losing consciousness) from an anesthesiologist….The most effective methods for relief of labor pain are regional anesthetics in which medications are placed near the nerves that carry the painful impulses from the uterus and cervix, lessening pain and facilitating your participation in your delivery. Our anesthesiologists commonly use an epidural, spinal, or combined spinal-epidural to minimize pain.

Nothing is mentioned other than relaxation, breathing, and calling the anesthesiologist.  However, in home settings (and even at other hospitals) many women choose “pain relief” from any number of options that do not require an anesthesiologist, such as walking, changing position frequently, sitting on a birth ball, taking a warm shower, or submerging in warm water.  They may also get pain relief assistance from massage or from non-drug-based interventions such as acupuncture.  This is not a complete list.  It should be noted that all of these other options could be made available at home–the only one that could not is the anesthesiologist.  No mention is made of the risks of anesthesia nor of what can be done in the event that the epidural or spinal doesn’t work.  Choosing pain relief does NOT have to mean choosing an epidural–unless you are at this hospital, where according to the state more than 85% of women have epidurals (and that doesn’t include spinals and other medical methods).

Many of NYP-WC’s policies and standard procedures would preclude use of most pain relief options anyway.  Here’s what happens once a women is admitted to her birthing room:

your nurse will assess your blood pressure, pulse, and temperature, and place you on a fetal monitor. The nurse will monitor you throughout your labor and help you explore which comfort measures work best for you. An intravenous line may be placed to give you medication and fluids. You may also receive ice chips to help quench your thirst. Do not eat any food without your physician’s permission.

Not only are these policies not home-like, they aren’t even evidence based:

  • According to the Cochrane Reviews, continuous electronic fetal monitoring (EFM) in low-risk births increases a woman’s risk of an unnecessary C-section. Because the risks-benefits ratios of EFM and intermittent auscultation, in which a health care provider listens to the fetal heart rate with a Doppler or fetoscope at regular intervals, are similar, Cochrane recommends that women be given information and then choose for themselves.
  • IV fluids can also lead to complications, such as too much fluid in the mother or newborn.  In addition, having an IV in place is conducive to starting a cascade of interventions, as having the IV in place makes it easier to begin a Pitocin drip.
  • The Cochrane Review on eating and drinking in labor concludes, “Since the evidence shows no benefits or harms, there is no justification for the restriction of fluids and food in labour for women at low risk of complications.”

cascade of interventions

(see original here)

Only two people can be with the woman in labor.  Last I checked, I was allowed to have whoever the heck I want in my house.

The hospital does not allow videorecording of the birth.  At home, you could live stream your birth if you were so inclined.

Rooming in is offered but not required.  Obviously at home, there is no nursery staffed by nurses.  In addition, rooming in is the standard for Baby Friendly Hospitals, as non-medically necessary separations can negatively impact breastfeeding.

One of the things many women appreciate most about their home births is the freedom to move around and to birth in any position they choose.  An acquaintance of mine who had an accidental home birth said that although she hadn’t planned it, she liked the experience, especially because “no one made me get on the little table.”  Another acquaintance said that as she was birthing, her OB asked that she get on her back for each contraction because, the OB said, “that’s the way I prefer to deliver.” Still another friend said that although there was a squat bar available in her birthing room, her OB refused to let her use it and threatened to leave if she would not lie on her back.

Notably, NOTHING is said in the guide about freedom of movement or position during labor or birth.  If a woman is tethered to a monitor and has an epidural, her movement would be curtailed even if hospital policy did not restrict her.

Finally, in the “Patient Responsibilities” section, the guide lists this “responsibility” (all emphasis mine):

Follow the treatment plan recommended by the health care team responsible for your care and the care of your baby. This group may include doctors, nurses, and allied health personnel who are carrying out the coordinated plan of care, implementing your doctor’s orders, and enforcing the applicable Hospital rules and regulations.

In your own home, you make the rules.

If Grunebaum and Chervenak want women to choose their hospital’s maternity care over a home birth, they’ve got a lot of work to do.

What is an Episiotomy?

To attempt objectivity in definition, let’s start with the dictionary: episiotomy is “an incision into the perineum and vagina to allow sufficient clearance for birth.”  This means the vagina is cut open to make it bigger, ostensibly to make it easier for the baby to come out.  The cut goes in the direction of the anus.

There are two types of episiotomy: midline, in which the cut is made in a straight line toward the anus, and mediolateral, in which the cut is made at an angle toward one side of the anus.

episiotomy

In a review of the procedure, Cleary-Goldman and Robinson note that technically episiotomy refers to the cutting of the external genitalia, and perineotomy more accurately describes what is called episiotomy in American obstetrical practice.  If you are not squeamish, you can do a search on Google Images for episiotomy and see what they look like in photos rather than drawings.  I mean it about the not squeamish part.

A Short History

There is documentation of episiotomy being performed in the 1700s in particularly difficult and prolonged births.  There is also documentation in this era of using support and lubricants (such as hog lard) to prevent tearing of the perineum during birth.  Accounts in the preceding links differ, but episiotomies appear to have been introduced in the United States in the mid 1800s.  The combination of anesthesia, hospital birth, and routine use of forceps served to popularize episiotomies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In 1918, advocating for episiotomy in a journal article, obstetrician Ralph Pomeroy wrote, “Why should we consider it other than reckless to allow the child’s head to be used as a battering ram?”  Obstetrician Joseph B. DeLee published a subsequent article on episiotomy in 1920 and claimed that episiotomy “preserves the integrity of the pelvic floor, forestalls uterine prolapse, rupture of the vaginal-vesico septum, and the long train of sequalae.”  Doctors also preferred the ease of sewing the straight incision of an episiotomy rather than a tear.

The speculations of  Pomeroy and DeLee were absorbed as truth, and episiotomy became routine procedure for physician-attended births, even though there was no actual evidence to support episiotomy’s effectiveness in preserving women’s pelvic function.  The procedure was not widely questioned or tested by anyone in mainstream obstetrics until the 1990s.

What Happens after Episiotomy?

Episiotomy has sometimes been referred to dismissively as a “little snip,” but like mackerel and pudding, the words vagina and snip should exist far, far away from one another.  Episiotomy can have serious health consequences, including

  • Bleeding
  • Tearing past the incision into the rectal tissues and anal sphincter
  • Perineal pain [short and long term]
  • Infection
  • Perineal hematoma (collection of blood in the perineal tissues)
  • Pain during sexual intercourse [short and long term]

Some women recover quickly from episiotomy and do not report lasting problems.  Some women even request an episiotomy to shorten second stage labor–after hours of pushing, anything to hasten the birth may seem a relief.

For many women, however, episiotomy (which, after all, is a deep cut into the genitals) is traumatic and has long-term effects.  In nearly all cases, an episiotomy is not necessary, meaning that these women suffer while accruing no medical benefit.

Evidence

(See here for a brief explanation of a randomized control trial.)

In 1992, a group of Canadian physicians published the results of a randomized control trial in Current Clinical Trials showing that there was “no evidence that liberal or routine use of episiotomy prevents perineal trauma or pelvic floor relaxation.”  In addition, they found that almost all severe perineal trauma occurred among women who had median (midline) episiotomies, and that among women who had already had at least one vaginal birth, those who had episiotomies were much more likely to tear and needed more stitches on average than women who did not have episiotomies.

In 1993, a group of Argentine physicians published the results of a randomized control trial in the Lancet.  Their randomized control trial of 2606 women showed that routine episiotomy (rather than “selective” episiotomy) increased risk of severe perineal trauma.  Those in the routine group also showed higher rates of ” posterior perineal surgical repair, perineal pain, healing complications, and dehiscence.”  The study concluded that “[r]outine episiotomy should be abandoned.”

A 1995 study published in the Canadian  Medical Association Journal found that “Physicians with favo[rable] views of episiotomy were more likely to use techniques to expedite labour, and their patients were more likely to have perineal trauma and to be less satisfied with the birth experience.”  This study also found that the doctors who liked episiotomy had difficulty following study protocols about when to perform the procedure and were more likely to diagnose fetal distress and perform cesareans than their counterparts who did not have favorable views of episiotomy.

Some physicians still try to justify performing episiotomy to prevent tears, but tearing was shown to be preferable to episiotomy in a 2004 Scandinavian randomized control trial: “Avoiding episiotomy at tears presumed to be imminent increases the rate of intact perinea and the rate of only minor perineal trauma, reduces postpartum perineal pain and does not have any adverse effects on maternal or fetal morbidity.”

A 2012 Cochrane Review did not find significant differences between midline and mediolateral episiotomy–both were generally worse than avoiding an episiotomy altogether: “Women [who did not have episiotomies] experienced less severe perineal trauma, less posterior perineal trauma, less suturing and fewer healing complications at seven days (reducing the risks by from 12% to 31%); with no difference in occurrence of pain, urinary incontinence, painful sex or severe vaginal/perineal trauma after birth.”

Current American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) guidelines note that “routine episiotomy does not prevent pelvic floor damage leading to incontinence” and recommend against routine use of episiotomy.  The guidelines note that median (midline) episiotomy is associated with anal sphincter injuries but that mediolateral episiotomy is “associated with difficulty of repair, greater blood loss, and, possibly, more early postpartum discomfort.”

The Royal College of Midwives (RCM, in the United Kingdom) offers the following evidence based reasons for episiotomy:

  • Aid the delivery of the presenting part when the perineum is tight and causing poor progress in the second stage of labour
  • Allow more space for operative or manipulative deliveries, such as forceps, shoulder dystocia or breech delivery (NICE, 2007; RCOG, 2005)
  • Prevent damage of the fetus during a face or breech presentation, or during instrumental delivery
  • Shorten the second stage of labour for fetal distress (Sleep, 1995) or maternal medical condition
  • Accommodate issues associated with female genital mutilation to the benefit of both mother and baby (Hakim, 2001).
  • Episiotomy is contraindicated when there is a high head. In these circumstances, descent will not be assisted.

Note that in the case of shoulder dystocia, the episiotomy is justified only to give the practitioner more room to perform necessary maneuvers.  Episiotomy does not, in itself, help with shoulder dystocia.  As the obstetrical nurse and midwife who blogs at Birth Sense explains:

Many physicians will openly admit that episiotomy does nothing to help facilitate the delivery of a baby with shoulder dystocia, because it is not a tissue problem, but a bone problem. The shoulder is stuck behind bone, and cutting the woman’s perineal tissue does not resolve the problem. Then why do it? Most physicians I’ve spoken with admit it is simply a matter of protecting themselves legally: by cutting a large episiotomy, they can show they’ve done everything they could possibly do to try to deliver the baby.

A recent study by Paris et al concluded episiotomy does not appear to reduce brachial plexus injuries (a rare paralysis associated with shoulder dsytocia):

There were a total of 94,842 births, 953 shoulder dystocias, and 102 brachial plexus injuries. The rate of episiotomy with shoulder dystocia dropped from 40% in 1999 to 4% in 2009 (P = .005) with no change in the rate of brachial plexus injuries per 1000 vaginal births.

Despite the evidence, shoulder dystocia is still commonly cited on popular consumer websites as a reason for episiotomy.

Overall, there are sometimes good reasons to perform episiotomy for the safety of the woman, the fetus, or both.  However, as Kim Gibbon of the RCM notes,

Consent is required for episiotomy, as it woud be for any surgical procedure. Women must be given a full explanation of the nature of the procedure and the situations under which its use will be proposed (Carroli and Belizan, 1999). Ideally, this should occur in the antenatal period so that the woman’s consent can be sought and documented at this stage. Further explanation should be given to the woman when a decision to use episiotomy is made to provide reassurance and confirm consent.

Current Practice

The Leapfrog Group has begun reporting episiotomy rates as one of its maternity care measures.  Unfortunately, reporting is voluntary at the hospital level, so there is only data for a limited number of hospitals (information on how to find the information on the Leapfrog site is at the bottom of the  page *).  Just looking at the data that is available shows enormous variations in practice.  For instance, among the four campuses in the Baptist Memorial Hospital system in Mississippi, rates range from a low of 1.5% at the De Soto campus to a high of 38.8% at the Golden Triangle campus.  Cesarean rates at all four campuses are similar (32% to 35%), so it appears that women who are not good candidates for vaginal birth (as well as a good number who are) have already been eliminated at all campuses.  Skin elasticity is unlikely to vary much by region, so why the variation in episiotomy rates?

A report on the evidence for episiotomy by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) states,

Wide practice variations suggest that episiotomy use is heavily driven by local professional norms, experiences in training, and individual provider preference rather than variation in the physiology of vaginal birth.

Evidence indicates that many doctors have been slow to change practice regarding episiotomy, and that doctors who have not already changed may be increasingly reluctant to do so.  Like recommendations for bed rest, tradition or a “feel good” factor for the doctor may trump actual health outcomes.

Consistent with the findings of the Canadian study of physicians and their views on episiotomy (cited in the previous section), some hospitals with high rates of episiotomy are less likely to adhere to evidence-based maternity practice overall.  For instance, South Miami Hospital (of the Baptist Health South Florida network) has an episiotomy rate of 33.1%.  They also have the highest cesarean rate in the state (62%) and have not reached Leapfrog goals for early elective deliveries (induction or cesarean before 39 weeks for no medical reason).

The AHRQ report appears to give the most accurate reason for continued use of episiotomy at high rates: provider preference. One obstetrician quoted in the New York Times said that during her residency, “Fifty percent of the episiotomies I’ve done were because my supervising staff wanted to go back to bed.” According to this Times story, the quoted doctor has a colleague, who “‘loves epis’ and cuts them during almost every vaginal birth.”

Mothers’ reports from My Ob Said What? indicate that time is indeed  more important to some doctors than the integrity of women and their vaginas.  One mother reports questioning why her OB performed an episiotomy and was told, ““Why did I just do an episiotomy? I did an episiotomy because you would have been pushing for another 20 minutes!”  A friend of mine had an OB who told her, “Which do you think is easier for ME to sew up–a straight cut or a jagged tear?” (my friend switched practitioners).  A study by Webb and Culhane found that obstetrical procedures such as episiotomies increased at peak times in Philadelphia hospitals, to the detriment of women:

The fact that incidences of 3rd or 4th degree lacerations are high at roughly the same times that procedure use is high is consistent with what is known about the risks associated with episiotomy and vacuum/forceps use, and suggests that efforts to influence the timing of births through more liberal use of obstetric interventions may increase the morbidity associated with vaginal delivery.

Although rates of episiotomy have decreased drastically overall, some doctors do still perform them routinely, as this doctor indicated to a first-time mom who requested not to have one: “Well, we’ll see. I find that pretty much all of my first time mothers require an episiotomy.”

In addition, like the woman above, many women do not consent to episiotomies, but are cut anyway.  After one woman told her OB she did not want an episiotomy and preferred to tear (which is evidence based according to the Scandinavian study cited above), her OB told her, “I’m just giving you an episiotomy anyway.”  Another woman commented at the Chicago Tribune,

When I was pushing out my third child, my doula nudged my husband and told him that the OB was preparing to cut an episiotomy. The OB had not asked me if it was ok, and hadn’t even mentioned it. My husband piped up and said, “My wife doesn’t want an episiotomy.” He said that twice. The OB ignored him and injected me with the lidocaine. I finally clued in and shouted “I do not consent to an episiotomy” two times before the OB put her scissors down. Two times!! The kicker is that I didn’t tear. Not one bit. The episiotomy would have been completely unnecessary.

A 2005 comprehensive review in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) concurs with the above comment (emphasis mine):

The goals for quality of care must remain focused on both optimizing safety for the infant and minimizing harm to the mother. Given that focus, clinicians have the opportunity to forestall approximately 1 million episiotomies each year that are not improving outcomes for mothers.

While women sometimes successfully sue for episiotomies that are botched, as with cesarean (see this December 23, 2013 post), it is difficult to win a suit for an episiotomy performed without consent.  Generally, a doctor argues that the procedure was in the best interest of the fetus, and the woman’s rights cease to matter.

But women do matter.  Their pain matters.  Their sexual pleasure matters.  And most of all, their informed consent to what is done to their own bodies matters.  Practitioners may want to believe that they know better than their patients and can therefore slice and dice as they please.  They may believe that it is acceptable to sacrifice women’s bodily integrity to their own convenience.  Such a stance turns a woman into an object, a vessel who can be treated in any fashion as long as her body yields a healthy baby.  Women and those who love them must stand for a woman’s right to be human in childbirth — and always.

*To do a comparison of episiotomy rates at hospitals, click the Leapfrog Group link.  On the Leapfrog page, select “state” in the search by menu, select your state, and accept the terms of use.  On the next page, click the “Maternity Care” tab.  If there are any green bars in the “rate of episiotomy” column, click the blue question mark, and the rate will come up in a new window.

There is some debate in the blogosphere about whether or not women should care about anything in their birth experience other than a healthy baby.

You can read posts that indicate that a healthy baby should be privileged to the exclusion of other concerns here (read the responses), here, and here.

While it appears that people say “all that matters is a healthy baby” to women all the time, not as many want to go public with that sentiment.  Women who have been told that “all that matters is a healthy baby,” however, have some feelings about that idea, and so do advocates for women.  You can read posts that indicate that there are important things to value in birth in addition to a healthy baby herehere, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.  If you google “healthy baby all that matters,” you can get more than 4 million other responses.

The statement that “all that matters is a healthy baby” dehumanizes women and suggests that they are nothing more than a conduit for birth.  While nearly all birthing women want nothing more than a healthy baby, it is disingenuous to imply that women cannot have healthy babies and be treated with dignity and have their own health valued at the same time.  And if a woman has an unhealthy baby, the woman’s health is still important.  The White Ribbon Alliance advocates for respectful maternity care as a human right.

respectful maternity care

view a larger version of the poster here

The WRA points out that violations of these rights happens in rich countries and poor countries and that women remember their childbirth experiences for a lifetime.  A healthy baby is very, very important.  So is a healthy mother–and mental health is as important as physical health to a woman’s ability to care for herself AND a newborn after birth.

 

Update: For information and analysis of the Rinat Dray forced cesarean case, see VBAC vs. Forced Cesarean: Facts, Opinion, and Informed Consent

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