“Hospitals offering VBAC are required to have 24/7 anesthesia” is false

by Feb 1, 2016Hospital birth, VBAC, VBAC Bans9 comments

Update November 29, 2017: Since this article was published, ACOG released even stronger guidelines specifying that any Level 1 hospital should be offering VBAC: “Trial of labor after previous cesarean delivery should be attempted at facilities capable of performing emergency deliveries…women attempting TOLAC should be cared for in a level 1 center (ie, one that can provide basic care) or higher.” (ACOG, 2017)

If ACOG ever intended for 24/7 anesthesia or OB presence to be required to offer VBAC, they would have used plain, clear, and unambiguous language to express that, not vague phrases like “immediately available” which are open to interpretation.

Update September 13, 2021: It’s been four years since ACOG clearly and unequivocally asserted that level 1 hospitals should offer VBAC and two years since they reiterated this sentiment in their 2019 interim guidelines. So why aren’t hospitals saying, “We have to offer VBAC because ACOG says so?”

Why do we still have hospitals in the United States mandating repeat cesareans while citing ACOG and “patient safety” when we know repeat cesareans only increase the risk of uterine rupture, accreta, and previa in future pregnancies?

Because it was never about patient safety. Only provider preference and liability concerns. And it’s really easy to coerce birthing people. Even though many want a VBAC, only 13% do in the US. 87% have a repeat cesarean and few are warned of the risks. If this was about patient safety, we would have transparency.

In 2010, I was sitting next to an OB/GYN during a lunch break at the National Institutes of Health VBAC Conference. She was telling me about how she had worked at a rural hospital, without 24/7 anesthesia, that offered vaginal birth after cesarean (VBAC).

I asked her what they did in the event of an emergency. “I perform an emergency cesarean under local anesthetic,” she plainly stated. She explained how you inject the anesthetic along the intended incision line, cut and then inject the next layer and cut, all the way down until you get to the baby.

It certainly wasn’t ideal, but it was how her small facility was able to support VBAC while responding to those uncommon, but inevitable, complications that require immediate surgical delivery.

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What a hospital needs to offer VBAC

They had everything a hospital needs to offer VBAC: a supportive policy, supportive providers, and motivation to make VBAC available at their hospital.

From a public health standpoint, it’s to our benefit to offer VBAC because repeat cesareans increase the rate of accreta in future pregnancies as well as hysterectomy and excessive bleeding.

Additionally, rural hospitals are NOT capable of managing an accreta because it requires far more than (local) anesthesia and a surgeon. (Read more on how morbidity, mortality, and ideal response differs between uterine rupture and accreta.)

When I hear of smaller, rural hospitals telling women that they can’t offer VBAC because “ACOG requires” 24/7 anesthesia, I think of that OB/GYN and ACOG’s (2010) guidelines which state

Women and their physicians may still make a plan for a TOLAC [trial of labor after cesarean] in situations where there may not be “immediately available” staff to handle emergencies, but it requires a thorough discussion of the local health care system, the available resources, and the potential for incremental risk.

So, yes, it is possible and reasonable to offer VBAC without 24/7 anesthesia.

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    Is this ideal? No.

    It is ideal? No.

    But do you know what else is not ideal?

    It’s not ideal to have VBAC bans mandating repeat cesareans that expose women to the increasing risks of surgical birth across the board as a matter of policy—risks that can be far more serious and life-threatening than the risks of VBAC.

    It’s not ideal to have a double standard for those planning VBACs, because any woman giving birth may require emergency surgery.

    It’s not ideal to have a cesarean (scheduled or emergency) at a hospital that doesn’t have a blood bank.

    It’s not ideal for someone to drive hours from home, especially in labor, because no hospital in their community supports VBAC.

    It’s not ideal to have state troopers attending roadside births for some of those women.

    And it’s deadly for rural hospitals to be managing a surprise accreta.

    VBAC bans increase the risk of accreta at community hospitals which threaten public health.

    So, we have to come up with better options.

    We can’t continue to pretend that banning VBAC is in the best interest of families.  It does not serve our communities in the long run because it simply increases the risks of more serious complications in future pregnancies.

    Learning how to perform a cesarean under local anesthetic makes hospitals—regardless of geography—safer places to give birth. It enables them to perform cesareans more quickly when they don’t have an anesthesiologist in the hospital but the baby needs to be born NOW.

    This could make a huge difference in the outcomes for any laboring woman—VBAC or non-VBAC—as well as her baby.

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    What do you think?
    Leave a comment.

    What do you think? Leave a comment.


    1. Curious, would there be much difference between an emergency between a VBAC delivery and a non-VBAC delivery at this hospital? If anesthesia is the difference for VBAC allowed at a hospital, then people should be arguing that this hospital shouldn’t even be delivering babies at all. Just thinking out loud.

      • Absolutely, one could make that argument and many have. The challenge is that maternity care deserts are real. These are huge areas of the country where people have to drive long distances in order to access maternity care. As a result, we see worse outcomes among birthing parents living in rural areas. Rural hospitals play a critical role in making maternity care accessible in those underserved communities. Thus, even without 24/7 anesthesia coverage, rural hospitals do attend births and have emergency protocols in place. There are motivated rural hospitals – in the US and Canada – that safely offer VBAC by prioritizing the medical evidence and patient autonomy. This is consistent with ACOG’s clarification introduced in their 2017 VBAC guidelines where they clearly state that all Level 1 hospitals can offer VBAC. I delve deeper into the guidelines and politics of VBAC access in “The Truth About VBAC™ for Professionals,” one of the many continuing education trainings available within VBAC Facts® Professional Membership. If you are interested in learning more about this topic, that is the best place to go.

    2. I’m very upset by the tone of this article. I’m a labor n delivery nurse and pro VBAC. I can tell you that a c section done under a local anesthetic is barbaric and only done under emergency conditions. I’ve worked in these tiny hospitals, it’s not a place to have an emergency during your delivery. Not only does a mother scream in pain during a c section done under a local, but is there someone qualified to take care of a baby that may need some advanced support once it’s born? PROBABLY NOT, does the blood bank carry more than 2 units of blood that it has to share with the ER? PROBABLY NOT. Is there an ICU that can care for the mother and or baby after this emergency? NO, for sure no. This article advocates a dangerous situation and everyone who is trying to “get my VBAC” is not seeing the whole picture either. If you have been in the OR and listened to a mother scream in pain while her baby is cut out, and then the baby is given to an inadequate team while they wait for a transport NICU team?? If you have witnessed this??? You would stop and think a minute about what you are demanding or manipulating to get your way. People aren’t trying to prevent you from your dream delivery…..because they have seen what can happen, they are tryng fo protect you and your baby. This stop and think about the big picture tor Gods sake!

      • I’m not advocating for cesareans under local anesthesia. They are not ideal.

        It would be ideal if each hospital that offered L&D had 24/7 anesthesia.

        But that’s not possible.

        So given our imperfect system, and the increasing risk of mortality and morbidity associated with accreta, how do we move forward?

        Do we ban VBACs and require repeat cesareans? And ignore patient autonomy while exposing them to the increasing risks of higher order cesareans as well as the increasing risk of developing accreta in future pregnancies?

        Or do we offer parents a choice? Drive to the closest tertiary level hospital or plan for a VBAC at a community hospital?

        That’s what this article is about. It’s looking at the bigger picture and examining issues like VBAC bans, patient autonomy, and the public health.

        Who should ultimately make these decisions? What’s at stake?

        I argue that the pregnant person is the one who should make this call.

        And there are community hospitals without 24/7 anesthesia who honor patient autonomy and offer VBAC.

    3. I think the practitioners have a huge influence. In El Paso, TX, all the major hospitals say they support VBAC & VBAC2, but very few of the practitioners support VBACs and therefore they will coerce/force you into a repeat c-section. If practitioners and nursing staff support VBACs, they will find a way for their patients to have access to them.

    4. None of the hospitals in Southern OHio “offer” VBACs, only the larger teaching hospitals up in Columbus, 2 hrs away. However, I have had several clients who have managed to get VBAC births in these rural hospitals that say they don’t do them.

    5. The hospital for which I ((we have decided to birth our 2nd baby into this world)) does in fact, permit and offer VBAC’s based on the state of health of the mother during her 1st/most recent birth ((C-section)).

      In my case, because it is a totally separate hospital that is in the inner, more urban part of the city ((and is the county hospital)) my husband still wishes for us to birth this baby at the same hospital as our 1st baby, plus we concluded, in the case that we enter into the laboring process, we do not believe it to be in our best interest to drive all the way across Dallas to the hospital of our choosing this time around, as opposed to driving less than 10 minutes around the corner to the same hospital that delivered our 1st baby!

      I hope my post is clearly typed. If not, than please comment and ask me questions.

    6. Our hospital will not allow VBAC or VBA2C. Which is horrible because I would like to have one. And many other moms would too in this area. It’s 2 hours away to have one at a bigger hospital. Even tho a hospital an hour away states they are VBAC friendly. We have not heard of one that hasn’t become Cesarean.
      Island hospital Anacortes WA

    7. So, yes, it is possible and reasonable to offer VBAC without 24/7 anesthesia.


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    Jen Kamel

    As an internationally recognized consumer advocate and Founder of VBAC Facts®, Jen helps perinatal professionals, and cesarean parents, achieve clarity on vaginal birth after cesarean (VBAC) through her educational courses for parents, online membership for professionals, continuing education trainings, and consulting services. She speaks at conferences across the US, presents Grand Rounds at hospitals, advises on midwifery laws and rules that limit VBAC access, educates legislators and policy makers, and serves as an expert witness and consultant in legal proceedings. She envisions a time when every pregnant person seeking VBAC has access to unbiased information, respectful providers, and community support, so they can plan the birth of their choosing in the setting they desire.

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