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Women’s Autonomy and Scheduled Cesarean Sections in Brazil: A Cautionary Tale

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Background: In Brazil, one-fourth of all women deliver in the private sector, where the rate of cesarean deliveries is extremely high (70%). Most (64%) private sector cesareans are scheduled, although many women would have preferred a vaginal delivery. The question this study addresses is whether childbearing women were induced to accept the procedure by their physicians, and if so, how?Methods:Three face-to-face structured interviews were conducted with 1,612 women (519 private sector and 1,093 public sector) early in pregnancy, approximately 1 month before their due date, and approximately 1 month postpartum. For all private sector patients having a scheduled cesarean section, women’s self-reported reasons given for programming surgical delivery were classified into three groups according to obstetrical justification. Results: After loss to follow-up (19.2% of private sector and 34.4% of public sector), our final sample included 1,136 women (419 private sector and 717 public sector). Compared with public sector participants in the final sample, on average, private sector participants were older by 3.4 years (28.7 vs 25.3 yr), had 0.4 fewer previous deliveries (0.6 vs 1.0), and had 3.4 more years of education (11.0 vs 7.6 yr). The final samples also differed slightly with respect to preference for vaginal delivery: 72.3 percent among those in the private sector and 79.6 percent in public sector. The cesarean section rate was 72 percent in the private sector and 31 percent in the public sector. Of the women with reports about the timing of the cesarean decision, 64.4 percent had a scheduled cesarean delivery in the private sector compared with 23.7 percent in the public sector. Many cesarean sections were scheduled for an “unjustified” medical reason, especially among women who, during pregnancy, had declared a preference for a vaginal delivery. Among 96 women in this latter group, the reason reported for the procedure was unjustified in 33 cases. On the other hand, more cesarean deliveries were scheduled for “no medical justification,” including physician’s or the woman’s convenience, among women who preferred to deliver by cesarean (35/65). The incidence of real medical reasons for a scheduled cesarean section diagnosed before the onset of labor among private sector patients who had no previous cesarean birth and who wanted a vaginal delivery was 13 percent (31/243). Conclusions: The data suggest that doctors frequently persuaded their patients to accept a scheduled cesarean section for conditions that either did not exist or did not justify this procedure. The problem identified in this paper may extend well beyond Brazil and should be of concern to those with responsibility for ethical behavior in obstetrics. (BIRTH 35:1 March 2008)
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Keywords: cesarean; decision making; medical ethics; patient autonomy; patient views; scheduled cesarean

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Joseph E. Potter is a Faculty Research Associate and Kristine Hopkins is a Research Associate at the Population Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas, USA 2: Anibal Faúndes is a Professor of Obstetrics in the Medical Sciences Faculty, State University of Campinas, Campinas 3: Ignez Perpétuo is a Professor of Demography at the Center for Development and Regional Planning, Federal University of Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

Publication date: March 1, 2008

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