Neel Shah, Harvard Medical School assistant professor and practicing obstetrician, commenting in the New England Journal of Medicine Perspectives section – “A NICE Delivery – The Cross-Atlantic Divide over Treatment Intensity in Childbirth“, agrees with new United Kingdom National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines concluding that healthy, low-risk women are better off at home or in a midwife-led unit than in a hospital under the supervision of an obstetrician. Citing a table comparing outcomes in low-risk multiparous women from the Birthplace in England data, Shah writes:
The safety argument against physician-led hospital birth is simple and compelling: obstetricians, who are trained to use scalpels and are surrounded by operating rooms, are much more likely than midwives to pick up those scalpels and use them. For women giving birth, the many interventions that have become commonplace during childbirth are unpleasant and may lead to complications . . . .
He quite reasonably adds the caveat that the guidelines apply to low-risk women only and that even these women may develop labor complications without warning, but then, responsible home birth advocates acknowledge those same two points. That being said, I can’t resist adding a couple of caveats of my own.
First, one reason why women with risk factors plan home birth, women with prior cesareans being a common example, is that doctors and hospitals deny them the possibility of vaginal birth (Declercq 2013). With their only hospital alternative being unwanted and unneeded cesarean surgery, planned home birth becomes their least, worst option. This dilemma puts their choice squarely in the lap of the medical system. Another reason is that some women have been so emotionally traumatized by their treatment during a previous birth that they reject planned hospital birth and refuse intrapartum transfer even when this may be the safer option (Boucher 2009; Symon 2010). Again, the failure and its remedy lie with the system, not the woman.
Second, if the hospital lacks 24/7 obstetric, anesthesia, and pediatric coverage and at least a Level 2 nursery, which many do, then a woman is probably no better off in the hospital in an emergency than she would be at home or at a freestanding birth center. Furthermore, most urgent situations—a baby who doesn’t breathe, excessive bleeding, even umbilical cord prolapse—can be managed or stabilized by a properly trained and equipped home birth attendant. In fact, what would be done in the hospital is no different from what would be done at home: neonatal resuscitation, oxygen, medications to stop bleeding, maternal knee-chest position and manually holding the fetal head off the cord until cesarean.
Finally, with admirable frankness, Shah notes that unlike the U.K., and to the detriment of safety, “[A]ccess to obstetric care that is coordinated among homes, birthing centers, and hospitals is both unreliable and uncommon.” And while he doesn’t cast any blame, once more, the fault lies with the system. (Just as an FYI, a model guideline for transfer of care developed by a workgroup that included all stakeholders is publically available.)
Shah concludes: “The majority of women with straightforward pregnancies may truly be better off in the United Kingdom.” True that, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Dialing back the overuse of medical intervention and cesarean surgery; respecting the woman’s right to give informed consent and refusal; implementing a culture of care that is kind, compassionate, and respects a woman’s dignity; and ensuring that out-of-hospital birth attendants can consult, collaborate, and transfer care appropriately would have two benefits: it would reduce the number of women refusing hospital birth while minimizing the chance of adverse outcomes in those who continue to prefer to birth at home or in a freestanding birth center. Nonetheless, despite the generally positive responses accompanying Shah’s commentary, rather than inspiring a wave of reform, I would lay odds that the more common reaction to Shah’s piece within the medical community will be to shoot the messenger.
Boucher, D., Bennett, C., McFarlin, B., & Freeze, R. (2009). Staying home to give birth: why women in the United States choose home birth. J Midwifery Womens Health, 54(2), 119-126.
Declercq, E., Sakala, C., Corry, M. P., Applebaum, S., & Herrlich, Ariel. (2013). Listening to Mothers III. Pregnancy and Birth. New York: Childbirth Connection.
Symon, A., Winter, C., Donnan, P. T., & Kirkham, M. (2010). Examining autonomy’s boundaries: a follow-up review of perinatal mortality cases in UK independent midwifery. Birth, 37(4), 280-287.
About Henci Goer
Henci Goer, award-winning medical writer and internationally known speaker, is the author of The Thinking Woman’s Guide to a Better Birth and Optimal Care in Childbirth: The Case for a Physiologic Approach, She is the winner of the American College of Nurse-Midwives “Best Book of the Year” award. An independent scholar, she is an acknowledged expert on evidence-based maternity care.