A father says, “Why invite the risk of VBAC?”
I recently had an exchange with a father that I wanted to share because I think he has the same concerns as many other parents.
He first left a comment in response to the article I’m pregnant and want a VBAC, what do I do?
Make sure they have a surgical team ready to go 24-7 If you are attempting VBAC’S.
They have about 15 min’s to get the child out, without serious damage after complete uterine rupture. It won’t be a Bikini cut either.
VBACs can absolutely be offered safely without 24/7 anesthesia present. I had the opportunity to attend the March 2010 National Institutes of Health VBAC Conference where the ability of rural hospitals to safely attend VBACs was extensively discussed. One doctor spoke during the public comment period and stated that her rural hospital had a VBAC rate of over 30%! It turns out, if a hospital is supportive of VBAC and motivated, they can absolutely offer VBAC safely. (I also welcome you to read the commentary of two obstetricians and one certified nurse midwife who argued against the VBAC ban instated at their local rural hospital.) Read more about the policies that this hospital implemented: VBAC Ban Rationale is Irrational.
One large VBAC study found that while the risk of infant death or oxygen deprivation in VBACs was 0.05%, the maternal mortality in repeat cesareans was 0.04% (Landon, 2004). Whose lives do we save? And in fact Henci Goer’s analysis shares with us that the 0.05% rate is inaccurately elevated. In the Landon (2004) study, women whose babies had died before labor were encouraged to VBAC. Those infant deaths were included in the 0.05% figure even though their deaths could not be attributed to a labor after cesarean.
There was an entire lecture at the 2010 National Institutes of Health VBAC Conference about uterine rupture, oxygen deprivation and blood gases. You can find a summary in the Program and Abstracts.
Then he left a comment in response to the article A letter from a hospital explaining why they banned VBAC:
Well written letter by the physician. VBAC’s are very risky. I’ve lived through the personal horror of a catastrophe. And trust me it was catastrophic. I nearly lost my wife and full term son. My son now lives his life as a quadriplegic with Cerebral Palsy. You can’t convince me it’s worth the risk. Not for the child, not for the mother, not for the family, and not for the doctor and hospital.
Greedy insurance companies thought they could turn profits by forcing VBAC’s on mothers. The doctor’s letter is true to form and his statistics are on the money. If you care about people, mothers, babies, and family, “Don’t push for VBAC’S” do the opposite.
To which I replied:
I am so sorry about your son. To describe what happened to your son as tragic is a drastic understatement.
I agree that the policies in place during the 90s when insurance companies were pushing VBAC were entirely unsafe. VBAC became required in some places and some women were not given a choice about whether or not to VBAC. This resulted in women with contra-indications to VBAC experiencing bad outcomes. Women in crowded hospitals did not receive good care and had bad outcomes. Women desiring trials of labor after cesareans were induced and had bad outcomes. And all of this resulted in VBAC getting a bad name. “Instead of blaming the overuse of induction, mandatory VBACs regardless of suitability, and mismanagement of labor, doctors began saying that it was actually VBAC that was unsafe.” You can read more on the history of VBAC here.
Fortunately, we know more now about the risks and benefits of VBAC and repeat cesareans than we did in the 90s. Like how rupture rates vary depending on the scar type (Landon, 2004), how the risks of cesareans increase with each surgery (Silver, 2006) and the risk of uterine rupture and other complications decrease after the first VBAC (Mercer, 2008). We know now that inducing increases the risk of uterine rupture (Landon, 2004), but that it is a reasonable option when there is a medical indication. As the Guise 2010 Evidence Reports asserts,
“While rare for both TOL [trial of labor after cesarean] and ERCD [elective repeat cesarean delivery], maternal mortality was significantly increased for ERCD at 13.4 per 100,000 versus 3.8 per 100,000 for TOL. The rates of maternal hysterectomy, hemorrhage, and transfusions did not differ significantly between TOL and ERCD. The rate of uterine rupture for all women with prior cesarean is 3 per 1,000 and the risk was significantly increased with TOL (4.7 1,000 versus 0.3 1,000 ERCD). Six percent of uterine ruptures were associated with perinatal death. Perinatal mortality was significantly increased for TOL at 1.3 per 1,000 versus 0.5 per 1,000 for ERCD… VBAC is a reasonable and safe choice for the majority of women with prior cesarean. Moreover, there is emerging evidence of serious harms relating to multiple cesareans.”
So neither option is inherently safe or risky. Both offer a different set of risks. I think it’s important for women to understand these risks when considering their options. I wrote a summary here: Nervous About Planning a VBAC.
Once again, I’m so sorry about your son and I thank you for taking the time to leave your comment.
To which he replied:
Your statistics mean is nowhere near the mean quoted in the doctors letter. This doctor has performed how many births? and participated in many more. He travels around the country lecturing on this subject? His mean is 2.5% not .05%. .05% is risky too. But I believe 2.5% is more likely for for complications with VBAC.
Accidental death from cesarean he pegs at .001%. That’s .00001
To which I replied:
His statistics are wrong. That is why I posted the letter. I wanted to illustrate how important it is to educate yourself because some OBs just don’t know and give incorrect information either because they don’t know any better or because they are actively skewing their information. Please read my comment on the differences between an OB’s opinion and medical research.
There is not one large study on VBAC that shows a fetal mortality rate of 1 in 200 (0.5%.) Please check out my bibliography. I’ve read all these studies. If you can find a study on VBAC including over 5,000 women, controlling for scar type, induction method and dose that shows an infant mortality rate of 0.5%, I would love to see it.
To which he replied:
I still agree with the doctor’s letter above. Why invite the risk? and it is way way too risky. How could the liability limits of a midwife, or small hospital possibly cover such a tragedy? Should that be handled by malpractice reform? By allowing our health professionals to be unaccountable? Recovery for even economic loss is nearly impossible today. The liability is tremendous. Childbirth is already risky enough. I agree that induction may be a contributing factor and maybe more research should be done on those drugs and their use. Cervadil was used to induce my wife, and it was contra-indicated at that time in women with a scarred uterus by “the Physicians Desk Reference”; but that didn’t stop it’s use. This catastrophe didn’t happen in a busy hospital. It happened because the hospital and physicians were not prepared to deal with the profound emergency. I see no benefit to anyone, by lobbying for VBAC’S. Thanks for the reply
To which I replied:
There is about a 0.4% risk of having a uterine rupture with one prior low transverse cesarean in a spontaneous labor (meaning you weren’t induced or given Pitocin or other similar drugs during your labor) (Landon, 2004). One would think that with all the hoopla about uterine rupture, that this rate would be significantly higher than other obstetrical complications.
You might be surprised to learn that uterine rupture occurs at a similar rate to other obstetrical complications such as post partum hemorrhage, cord prolapse or placental abruption! And when we look at infant outcomes, there is about a 6% chance of infant death or oxygen deprivation after an uterine rupture (Landon, 2004) compared to the 12% risk of infant death after a placental abruption (Ananth, 1999).
Yet how many first time moms worry their entire pregnancies about placental abruption? How many considered an elective primary cesarean in an attempt to circumvent abruption? How many were offered, or even strongly pressured, to consider an elective cesarean by their friends, family, or OB? How many were made to feel selfish over their desire to plan a vaginal birth in the face of risks such as abruption?
And where are all the lawsuits resulting from the infant deaths as a result of placental abruption? Why aren’t people outraged that all these babies are dying as a result of selfish moms who should have been prudent and had scheduled cesareans to prevent this tragedy? We hold VBAC to such an impossible standard because the tolerance for risk has been reduced to zero.
Moms planning a VBAC are often made to feel that having a repeat cesarean is the most prudent, conservative choice whereas only selfish women who wish to experience vaginal birth plan a VBAC. Only people who do not understand the statistics would make such a bold claim.
The problem is that most people don’t understand the rate of obstetrical complications in a first time mom. Conventional wisdom and rumor does not give your average individual enough information to adequately compare the risks of a primary vaginal birth, repeat vaginal birth, primary cesarean, repeat cesarean, primary VBAC and repeat VBAC.
That is why we have medical studies because even doctors, who themselves attend thousands of births over their career, do not control for variables like researchers do.
Doctors focus on practicing medicine whereas researchers, who are often medical doctors who still see patients, focus on constructing studies, maintaining records, and controlling for variables. All of this enables researchers to accurately detect and measure the incidence of complications and also identify larger patterns.
One thing we have learned from medical studies is that the risk of infant death during a VBAC attempt is “similar to the risk” of infant death during the labor of a first time mom (Smith, 2002). Should all first time moms have cesareans because their labor is just to risky?
Let’s not forget that while a cesarean could prevent a would-be uterine rupture, placental abruption, or cord prolapse, cesareans themselves introduce many serious risks. In the face of immediate death or damage to mom or baby, these risks are absolutely acceptable. However, when we are performing major abdominal surgery on the other 99.6% of women who will not have a uterine rupture, we are subjecting them to an unnecessary level of risk.
There are several complications that occur during a second scheduled cesarean section at a rate similar to or greater than the risk of uterine rupture during a spontaneous trial of labor after cesarean after one prior low transverse cesarean (0.4%) (Landon 2004). These complications include hysterectomy (0.42%), any blood transfusion (1.53%), a blood transfusion of four or more units (0.48%), maternal intensive care unit admission (0.57%), maternal wound infection (0.94%), and endometritis (2.56%) (Silver, 2006). And while Silver (2006) found that the maternal death rate was “only” 0.07% during a second cesarean, this is 3.5 times higher than the rate of maternal death in a trial of labor after cesarean (0.02%) and 1.4 times higher than the risk of infant death or oxygen deprivation (0.05%) (Landon, 2004.) Keep in mind that all the cesareans included in the Silver (2006) study were scheduled. All the complications noted were a direct result of the surgery, not of any other medical complication.
These are important facts for people to know before they make the judgment of which option is more “risky:” VBAC vs. repeat cesarean. It’s not enough to understand the risks of VBAC, one must also understand the risks of cesarean section. Only then can one see that neither are inherently safe or risky. They both offer a different set of risks. .
Cesareans also have major implications for all future pregnancies and delivery options. The risks of complications increase with each cesarean section which make subsequent pregnancies more precarious which increases the likelihood of a bad outcome for mom or baby. According to Silver (2006), a four year study of up to six repeat cesareans in 30,000 women:
Increased risks of placenta accreta, hysterectomy, transfusion of 4 units or more of packed red blood cells, [bladder injury], bowel injury, urethral injury, ileus [absence of muscular contractions of the intestine which normally move the food through the system], ICU admission, and longer operative time were seen with an increasing number of cesarean deliveries…. After the first cesarean, increased risk of placenta previa, need for postoperative (maternal) ventilator support, and more hospital days were seen with increasing number of cesarean deliveries.
Because the risks of cesarean are so great, they conclude their study with the following statement, “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.”
Additionally, scheduled cesarean section puts anyone else who experiences a medical emergency requiring surgery in danger because those operating rooms become unavailable. I wonder how often women with true obstetrical complications requiring immediate cesareans, such as your wife, or non-obstetrical emergencies such as car accident or gunshot victims, have been unable to receive that urgent, time sensitive care due to otherwise healthy moms and healthy babies undergoing scheduled elective repeat cesareans and tying up the operating rooms? With 92% of women having repeat cesareans (Martin, 2006), I’m sure it’s happened, especially in smaller hospitals, many of which only have one or two operating rooms. These routine repeat cesareans impact everyone and it’s only going to get worse.
According to the CDC (Menacker, 2010), “The number of cesarean births increased by 71% from 1996 (797,119) to 2007 (1,367,049) [and] In 2007, approximately 1.4 million women had a cesarean birth, representing 32% of all births, the highest rate ever recorded in the United States and higher than rates in most other industrialized countries.” The latest data from the CDC shows that 92% of women have a repeat cesarean (Martin, 2009). So with 1.4 million cesareans annually, we can look forward to approximately 1 million repeat cesareans annually in the future. With primary cesarean rates growing, our repeat cesarean rate will grow, we will witness more of the complications identified by Silver (2006), including more maternal deaths, and more cases of people who really need emergency surgery dying because operating rooms are filled with otherwise healthy moms and healthy babies undergoing scheduled cesareans.
You said, “It happened because the hospital and physicians were not prepared to deal with the profound emergency.” I would gently suggest that the problem was more with your hospital than VBAC. They induced your wife with a drug that was contraindicated in a trial of labor after cesarean and then were unprepared for an obstetrical emergency. If your wife had a placental abruption or a serious complication from a repeat cesarean, it sounds like they would have been just as unprepared. That is an entirely separate issue than whether VBACs are excessively risky.
Thank you again for your comments and I wish you the best.
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Jen Kamel is the founder of VBAC Facts, an educational, training and consulting firm. As a nationally recognized VBAC strategist and consumer advocate, she has been invited to present Grand Rounds at a hospital, served as an expert witness in a legal proceeding, and has traveled the country educating hundreds of professionals and highly motivated parents. Even more have accessed her trainings online. She speaks at national conferences and has worked as a legislative consultant in various states focusing on midwifery legislation and regulations. She has testified multiple times in front of the California Medical Board and legislative committees on the importance of VBAC access and is the Secretary for the California Association of Midwives and the California Association of Licensed Midwives. Her favorite flavor of ice cream is peanut butter chocolate. And mint chip. And coffee.