Choosing cesarean limits future choices

I was irritated to discover that Time magazine published an article entitled “Choosy Mothers Choose Cesareans” in their special Environmental Issue. Since cesarean surgery is an over-used procedure[1], it is quite inappropriate for this type of article to appear along-side articles dealing with the Presidential candidates’ climate change positions and how the US can be more green.  Needlessly consuming medical services is anything but green, and Time magazine should take responsibility for its poor choice in content.

According to the article, more women are choosing cesareans, a trend doctors expect will continue.  I do not know nor have heard of anyone actually choosing a cesarean, save the stories I read or hear about through the media.  I believe that the media is creating this belief that women choose cesareans, and that this is a trend we should expect to see continue.  But perhaps it is true that women are choosing major surgery for reasons cited, such as (1) fear of ripping/tearing the perineum, (2) fear of incontinence, (3) fear of pain, (4) fear of birth, (5) or fear of having a stretched-out vagina.  Time‘s article feeds into the misperceptions of birth generated by Hollywood blogs and reality shows like A Baby Story.

Fear of ripping/tearing:  from what I have learned over the years, women rarely rip or tear during childbirth if they push following their body’s signs, are given appropriate time to labor and birth their babies, and/or have the perineum massaged or supported during pushing.  Episiotomies can cause more damage to the perineum, vagina, and anus than a natural tear anyway.  I wonder if this fear stems from botched episiotomies?

Fear of incontinence: cesarean delivery does not prevent incontinence.  Sorry!

Fear of pain: I wonder why so many women are taught to fear the pain of childbirth.  Granted labor was one of the most challenging things I have ever done, but I think my exercise habits and outdoor enthusiasm (road biking, hiking, backpacking, running) had prepared me for childbirth.  I don’t look back on my labor and regret the pain – I regret the fact that a cesarean became necessary.  Anyone who has done a little bit of study on the purpose of pain in childbirth can tell you that it is actually beneficial – it can indicate problems that need attention as well as provide important feedback to the mother and her careproviders regarding her progress.

Fear of birth: there actually is a term for women who have a fear (phobia) of childbirth – lockiophobia.  If a woman is not phobic, then she should work with a psychologist or psychotherapist to determine the root causes of her fear and overcome those.  Pregnancy can bring up psychological pains of the past, but they are not avoided through cesarean surgery.

Fear of a stretched-out vagina: do I really need to address this?

The title of my post suggests that cesareans will limit future choices.  This is true – women who have had a cesarean are at risk of being pressured into repeating surgery for future births, have a slightly more elevated risk of uterine rupture and other poor birth outcomes, are unable to have normal birth at most birth centers [2], may not be able to have a normal birth at their local hospitals [3], will be pressured to comply with hospital protocols that may lead to interventive birth outcomes for future births, may have difficulty finding providers who will support their choices in future births to name a few limitations.

Other things you may not know about cesarean aftermath [4]

  1. Risk of post-partum depression and post-traumatic stress disorder
  2. Negative impact on breastfeeding, bonding, and other key mammalian birth-related processes
  3. Stillbirth, miscarriage, infertility
  4. Pain, adhesions, slow recover, unsightly scaring
  5. Negative impact on relationships with other family members, particularly partners/spouses
  6. Rejection of birth – some women choose to never have another baby because they don’t want to go through surgery again; some women don’t feel like they gave birth; some women equate cesarean birth with “birth rape

Thankfully I have come to learn about the viability and appropriateness of vaginal birth after cesarean.  I was encouraged to subscribe to the ICAN Yahoo list where I learned much of what I know now about birth that I didn’t know before my daughter was born.  I know the dangers of choosing cesarean for the first, second, or fifth time.  I have experienced stress, depression, and other tangible and intangible outcomes related to cesarean surgery.  I worry that my current trouble with recurrent pregnancy loss is related to the cesarean.  I resent that I have to consume more medical services to rule out uterine defects caused by the cesarean.  Tomorrow I will have a hysterosalpinogram performed.

It is regrettable that women such as Ms. Chung are led to believe and accept that cesarean birth is risk free, complication free, and consequence free.  It is simply not the case, and it does not take more than 30 seconds with an internet search engine to learn that much care should be taken when deciding if cesarean surgery is right for a woman and her baby.  The March of Dimes states that cesarean surgery should only be performed when the mother’s life or baby’s life is at risk.  Cesarean surgery is a blessing when used appropriately, but its safety is not justification for indiscriminate use.

[I sent a slightly abridged version of this post to Time magazine’s Editor.]

[1] The World Health Organization maintains that an acceptable rate of birth via cesarean surgery is 10-15%.  When the cesarean rate exceeds this range, the risks outweigh the benefits.
[2] To read the AABC’s recent statement on VBACs at birth centers, click here.
[3] Go to http://www.ican-online.org to see if your hospital allows VBACs.
[4] See also http://www.childbirthconnection.org/article.asp?ck=10166; read ICAN’s book, Cesarean Voices to learn how cesareans have impacted real women and real babies.