I hear a lot, “What’s the big deal about cesareans? What difference does it really make if you have a cesarean?” Of course, if a cesarean is medically necessary, then the benefits outweigh the risks. But in the absence of a medical reason, the risks of cesareans must be carefully considered.
“Once a cesarean, always a cesarean”
If a woman has a cesarean, she is very likely to only have cesareans for future births. This is because while 45% of American women are interested in the option of VBAC (1), 92% have a repeat cesarean (2). Let me say that another way. Only 8% of women with a prior cesarean successfully VBAC.
One might interpret this statistic to mean that planned VBACs often end in a repeat cesarean. However, VBACs are successful about 75% of the time (3-7). The VBAC rate is so low because of the women interested in VBAC, 57% are unable to find a supportive care provider or hospital (1). And I would argue further that even among the women who have a supportive care provider, those women are so bombarded by fear based misinformation masquerading as caring advice from friends and family, they have no chance. It is shocking to learn how ill-informed both women planning VBACs and repeat cesareans are about their birth options even upon admission to the hospital. There is a fundamental gap in our collective wisdom about post-cesarean birth options.
Cesareans make subsequent pregnancies riskier
What’s the big deal, right? Who cares if you have a cesarean without a medical reason?
Forget about the immediate risks to mom and baby that cesareans impose. Just set that all aside for a moment. Much of the risk associated with cesareans is delayed. Most people are not aware of the long term issues that can come with cesareans and how these complications impact the safety of future pregnancies, deliveries, and children.
It is a well-established fact that the more cesareans a woman has, the more risky subsequent pregnancies and labors are regardless if the mom plans a VBAC or a repeat cesarean. This was discussed at great lengths during the 2010 National Institutes of Health VBAC conference and was one of the reasons why ACOG released their less restrictive VBAC guidelines later that same year.
Many moms chose repeat cesareans because they believe cesareans are the prudent, safest choice. The fact that cesareans, of which over 1,000,000 occur in the USA each year, increases the complication rates of future pregnancies is often not disclosed to women during their VBAC consult.
A four year study looking at up to six cesareans in 30,000 women reported a startling number of complications that increased at a statistically significant rate as the prior number of cesareans increased:
The risks of placenta accreta [which has a maternal mortality of 7% and hysterectomy risk of 71%], cystotomy [surgical incision of the urinary bladder], bowel injury, ureteral injury [damage to the ureters – the tubes that connect the kidneys to the bladder in which urine flows – is one of the most serious complications of gynecologic surgery], and ileus [disruption of the normal propulsive gastrointestinal motor activity which can lead to bowel (intestinal) obstructions], the need for postoperative ventilation [this means mom can’t breathe on her own after the surgery], intensive care unit admission [mom is having major complications], hysterectomy, and blood transfusion requiring 4 or more units [mom hemorrhaged], and the duration of operative time [primarily due to adhesions] and hospital stay significantly increased with increasing number of cesarean deliveries (8).
Because the growing likelihood of serious complications that comes with each subsequent cesarean surgery, including uterine rupture, this study concluded,
Because serious maternal morbidity increases progressively with increasing number of cesarean deliveries, the number of intended pregnancies should be considered during counseling regarding elective repeat cesarean operation versus a trial of labor and when debating the merits of elective primary cesarean delivery (8).
This is because the risks of placenta accreta and previa in particular increase at a very high rate after multiple cesareans (9).
The largest prospective report of uterine rupture in women without a previous cesarean in a Western country,” concurred:
Ultimately, the best prevention [of uterine rupture] is primary prevention, i.e. reducing the primary caesarean delivery rate. The obstetrician who decides to perform a caesarean has a joint responsibility for the late consequences of that decision, including uterine rupture (10).
“Well, I just plan on having two kids…”
Unfortunately, many women don’t think about these future risks until they are pregnant again. And we all know the great difference between intended and actual family size.
According to the CDC, 49% of American pregnancies are unintentional (11). Thus, these theoretical risks quickly and suddenly become a reality for hundreds of thousands of American women every year. How women birth their current baby has real and well-documented implications and risks for their future pregnancies, children, and health.
VBAC bans and emergency response
In light of these increasing risks, VBAC bans do not make moms safer (12). Hospitals are either prepared for obstetrical complications, like uterine rupture in moms who plan VBACs and placenta accreta, previa, and cesarean hysterectomies among moms who plan repeat cesareans, or they are not. It is hard to understand how hospitals can claim that they are simultaneously capable of an adequate response to cesarean-related complications and yet they are unable or ill-equipped to respond to complications related to vaginal birth after cesarean. Especially in light of the fact that we know motivated hospitals currently offer VBAC even in the absence of 24/7 anesthesia (13).
A recent Wall Street Journal article discusses how hospitals are trying to create a standard response to obstetrical emergencies:
The CDC is funding programs in a number of states to establish guidelines and protocols for improving safety and preventing injury. And obstetrics teams are holding drills to train doctors and nurses to rapidly respond to maternal complications. They are using simulated emergencies that include fake blood, robots that mimic physiologic states, and actresses standing in as patients (14).
Because hospitals vary so greatly in their ability to coordinate a expeditious response to urgent situations,
Vivian von Gruenigen, system medical director for women’s health services at Summa Health System in Akron, Ohio, advises that pregnant women discuss personal risks with their doctor and ask hospitals what kind of training delivery teams have to respond in an emergency. ‘People think pregnancy is benign in nature but that isn’t always the case, and women need to be their own advocates,’ Dr. von Gruenigen says.
Impact of VBAC on future births
Counter the increasing risks that come with cesareans to the downstream implications for VBAC. After the first successful VBAC, the future risk of uterine rupture, uterine dehiscence, and other labor related complications significantly decrease (15). Thus, family size must be considered as VBAC is often the safer choice for women planning large families.
Bottom line? I defer to two medical professionals and researchers:
“There is a major misperception that TOLAC [trial of labor after cesarean] is extremely risky” – Mona Lydon-Rochelle PhD, MPH, MS, CNM (16-17).
In terms of VBAC, “your risk is really, really quite low” – George Macones MD, MSCE (16-17).
Women deserve the facts
Women are entitled to accurate, honest data explained in a clear, easy to understand format (18). They don’t deserve to have the risks exaggerated by an OB who wishes to coerce them into a repeat cesarean nor do they deserve to have risks sugar-coated or minimized by a midwife or birth advocate who may not understand the facts or whose zealous desire for everyone to VBAC clouds their judgement (19-20).
If you would like to get the opinions of actual VBAC supportive medical professionals who support a woman’s right to informed consent, there are several obstetricians and midwives who you can talk to on the VBAC Facts Community.
Take home message
Cesareans are not benign and the more you have, the more risky your future pregnancies become regardless of your preferred mode of delivery.
Almost half of the pregnancies in America are unintentional.
If hospitals can attend to cesarean-related complications, they can attend to VBAC-related complications.
1. Declercq, E. R., & Sakala, C. (2006). Listening to Mothers II: Reports of the Second National U.S. Survey of Women’s Childbearing Experiences. New York: Childbirth Connection. Retrieved from Childbirth Connection: http://www.childbirthconnection.org/article.asp?ck=10068
2. Osterman, M. J., Martin, J. A., Mathews, T. J., & Hamilton, B. E. (2011, July 27). Expanded Data From the New Birth Certificate, 2008. Retrieved from CDC: National Vital Statistics Reports: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr59/nvsr59_07.pdf
3. Coassolo, K. M., Stamilio, D. M., Pare, E., Peipert, J. F., Stevens, E., Nelson, D., et al. (2005). Safety and Efficacy of Vaginal Birth After Cesarean Attempts at or Beyond 40 Weeks Gestation. Obstetrics & Gynecology, 106, 700-6.
4. Huang, W. H., Nakashima, D. K., Rumney, P. J., Keegan, K. A., & Chan, K. (2002). Interdelivery Interval and the Success of Vaginal Birth After Cesarean Delivery. Obstetrics & Gynecology, 99, 41-44.
5. Landon, M. B., Hauth, J. C., & Leveno, K. J. (2004). Maternal and Perinatal Outcomes Associated with a Trial of Labor after Prior Cesarean Delivery. The New England Journal of Medicine, 351, 2581-2589.
6. Landon, M. B., Spong, C. Y., & Tom, E. (2006). Risk of Uterine Rupture With a Trial of Labor in Women with Multiple and Single Prior Cesarean Delivery. Obstetrics & Gynecology, 108, 12-20.
7. Macones, G. A., Cahill, A., Pare, E., Stamilio, D. M., Ratcliffe, S., Stevens, E., et al. (2005). Obstetric outcomes in women with two prior cesarean deliveries: Is vaginal birth after cesarean delivery a viable option? American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 192, 1223-9.
8. Silver, R. M., Landon, M. B., Rouse, D. J., & Leveno, K. J. (2006). Maternal Morbidity Associated with Multiple Repeat Cesarean Deliveries. Obstetrics & Gynecology, 107, 1226-32.
9. Kamel, J. (2012, Mar 30). Placenta problems in VBAMC/ after multiple repeat cesareans. Retrieved from VBAC Facts: http://vbacfacts.com/2012/03/30/placenta-problems-in-vbamc-after-multiple-repeat-cesareans/
10. Zwart, J. J., Richters, J. M., Ory, F., de Vries, J., Bloemenkamp, K., & van Roosmalen, J. (2009, July). Uterine rupture in the Netherlands: a nationwide population-based cohort study. BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, 116(8), pp. 1069-1080. Retrieved January 15, 2012, from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1471-0528.2009.02136.x/full
11. National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Division of Reproductive Health. (2012, Apr 4). Unintended Pregnancy Prevention. Retrieved from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: http://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/UnintendedPregnancy/index.htm
12. Kamel, J. (2012, Mar 27). Just kicking the can of risk down the road. Retrieved from VBAC Facts: http://vbacfacts.com/2012/03/27/just-kicking-the-can-of-risk-down-the-road/
13. Kamel, J. (2010, July 22). VBAC ban rationale is irrational. Retrieved from VBAC Facts: http://vbacfacts.com/2010/07/22/vbac-ban-rationale-is-irrational/
14. Landro, L. (2012, Dec 10). Steep Rise Of Complications In Childbirth Spurs Action. Retrieved from Wall Street Journal: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324339204578171531475181260.html?mod=rss_Health
15. Mercer BM, Gilbert S, Landon MB. et al. Labor Outcomes With Increasing Number of Prior Vaginal Births After Cesarean Delivery. Obstet Gynecol. 2008 Feb;111(2):285-291. Retrieved from: http://journals.lww.com/greenjournal/Fulltext/2008/02000/Labor_Outcomes_With_Increasing_Number_of_Prior.6.aspx
16. NIH Consensus Development Conference. (2010). Vaginal Birth After Cesarean: New Insights. Bethesda, Maryland. Retrieved from http://consensus.nih.gov/2010/vbac.htm
17. Kamel, J. (2012, Apr 11). The best compilation of VBAC research to date. Retrieved from VBAC Facts: http://vbacfacts.com/2012/04/11/best-compilation-of-vbac-research-to-date/
18. Kamel, J. (2012, Dec 7). Some people think I’m anti-this/ pro-that: My advocacy style. Retrieved from VBAC Facts: http://vbacfacts.com/2012/12/07/some-people-think-im-anti-thispro-that-my-advocacy-style/
19. Kamel, J. (n.d.). Birth myths. Retrieved from VBAC Facts: http://vbacfacts.com/category/vbac/birth-myths
20. Kamel, J. (n.d.). Scare tactics. Retrieved from VBAC Facts: http://vbacfacts.com/category/vbac/scare-tactics/