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Are There “Unnecessary” Cesarean Sections? Perceptions of Women and Obstetricians About Cesarean Sections for Nonclinical Indications

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Background: The belief that many women demand cesarean sections in the absence of clinical indications appears to be pervasive. The aim of this study was to examine whether, and in what context, maternal requests for cesarean section are made. Methods: Quantitative and qualitative methods were used. The overall study comprised 4 substudies: 23 multiparous and 41 primiparous pregnant women were asked to complete diaries recording events related to birth planning and expectations; 44 women who had considered, or been asked to consider, cesarean section during pregnancy were interviewed postnatally; 24 consultants and registrars in 3 district hospitals and 1 city hospital were interviewed; 5 consultants with known strong views about cesarean section were also interviewed; and 785 consultants from the United Kingdom and Eire completed postal questionnaires. Results: No woman requested cesarean section in the absence of, what she considered, clinical or psychological indications. Fear for themselves or their baby appeared to be major factors behind women’s requests for cesarean section, coupled with the belief that cesarean section was safest for the baby. Most obstetricians reported few requests for cesarean section, but nevertheless, cited maternal request as the most important factor affecting the national rising cesarean section rate. Several obstetricians discussed the significance of women’s fears and the importance of taking the time to talk to women about these fears. Conclusions: Existing evidence for large numbers of women requesting cesarean sections in the absence of clinical indications is weak. This study supports the thesis that these women comprise a small minority. Psychological issues and maternal perceptions of risk appear to be significant factors in many maternal requests. Despite this finding, maternal request is perceived by obstetricians to be a major factor in driving the cesarean section rate upward. (BIRTH 34:1 March 2007)
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Keywords: cesarean section; maternal choice; maternal request

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Helen Statham is a Senior Research Associate 2: Martin Richards is the former Director of the Centre for Family Research, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom.

Publication date: 2007-03-01

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