For many pregnant women in America, it is easier today to walk into a hospital and request major abdominal surgery than it is to give birth as nature intended. Jessica Barton knows this all too well. At 33, the curriculum developer in Santa Barbara, Calif., is expecting her second child in June. But since her first child ended up being delivered by cesarean section, she can't find an obstetrician in her county who will let her even try to push this go-round. And she could locate only one doctor in nearby Ventura County who allows the option of vaginal birth after cesarean (VBAC). But what if he's not on call the day she goes into labor? That's why, in order to give birth the old-fashioned way, Barton is planning to go to UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles. "One of my biggest worries is the 100-mile drive to the hospital," she says. "It can take from 2 to 3 1/2 hours. I know it will be uncomfortable, and I worry about waiting too long and giving birth in the car."
Much ado has been made recently of women who choose to have cesareans, but little attention has been paid to the vast number of moms who are forced to have them. More than 9 out of 10 births following a C-section are now surgical deliveries, proving that "once a cesarean, always a cesarean"--an axiom thought to be outmoded in the 1990s--is alive and kicking. Indeed, the International Cesarean Awareness Network (ICAN), a grass-roots group, recently called 2,850 hospitals that have labor and delivery wards and found that 28% of them don't allow VBACs, up from 10% in its previous survey, in 2004. ICAN's latest findings note that another 21% of hospitals have what it calls "de facto bans," i.e., the hospitals have no official policies against VBAC, but no obstetricians will perform them. (Read "The Year in Medicine 2008: From A to Z.")
Why the VBAC-lash? Not so long ago, doctors were actually encouraging women to have VBACs, which cost less than cesareans and allow mothers to heal more quickly. The risk of uterine rupture during VBAC is real--and can be fatal to both mom and baby--but rupture occurs in just 0.7% of cases. That's not an insignificant statistic, but the number of catastrophic cases is low; only 1 in 2,000 babies die or suffer brain damage as a result of oxygen deprivation.
After 1980, when the National Institutes of Health (NIH) held a conference on skyrocketing cesarean rates, more women began having VBACs. By 1996, they accounted for 28% of births among C-section veterans, and in 2000, the Federal Government issued its Healthy People 2010 report proposing a target VBAC rate of 37%. Yet as of 2006, only about 8% of births were VBACs, and the numbers continue to fall--even though 73% of women who go this route successfully deliver without needing an emergency cesarean.
So what happened? In 1999, after several high-profile cases in which women undergoing VBAC ruptured their uterus, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) changed its guidelines from stipulating that surgeons and anesthesiologists should be "readily available" during a VBAC to "immediately available." "Our goal wasn't to narrow the scope of patients who would be eligible, but to make it safe," says Dr. Carolyn Zelop, co-author of ACOG's most recent VBAC guidelines.