Michel Odent Speaks Out About Caesareans

Michel Odent, the man who, in the words of the Guardian, “encouraged women to experience pain-free labour in warm pools of water and was the first to write about the importance of placing newborn babies to the breast” has now warned about the dangers to the human race of the rise in caesarean sections.

In a new book called The Birth of Homo, The Marine Chimpanzee, Odent argues that modern medicalised births are working against evolution. Caesarean-born babies are more likely, for example, to be autistic. From the Guardian article:

“One effect of modern obstetrics is to neutralise the laws of natural selection – the laws that foiled us all [in the past]. We have neutralised those laws. It means that at the beginning of the 20th century, a woman who could not give birth naturally would die, whereas the one in the village who could give birth easily would have 12 children. Today, the number of children one has depends on other factors than the physical capacity to give birth.

“I mainly talk about obstetrics, but we can also talk about conception. If you cannot have a child, you can have medicalised conception. So we have neutralised the laws of natural selection. It is one of the biggest problems for humanity today and people don’t realise that. Any mathematician, any statistician interested in this topic will find ways to calculate what will happen – in my book I give several examples.”

“One of the biggest problems for humanity today”? That’s a pretty big claim – particularly if you think about global warming, pollution and the decline in the bee population. And those are just the environmental problems – don’t let’s forget the rise in antibiotic resistance and the imminent threat of nuclear war.

Evolution is brutal

So is Odent right to identify modern methods of childbirth and conception as a problem? Well, in a sense, yes. A hundred or so years ago, as he points out, a woman who could not give birth naturally would die. These days, a woman who can’t give birth naturally survives, thanks to surgical intervention.

Any normal person would surely see this as a cause for rejoicing. You could argue, as Odent does, that as a result of caesareans and other interventions, we’re breeding a race of humans who are ill-equipped for survival: women who have pelvises too narrow for a baby to pass through will give birth to daughters with similarly narrow pelvises. And so on. But it’s difficult to see why this is a problem. Modern medicine is saving lots of people who would otherwise have died: premature babies, babies with disabilities, children with diseases such as measles and meningitis. Vaccines for diseases such as polio and diphtheria mean that children who would previously have been too weak to survive those diseases are now never exposed to them in the first place. Unless we abandon using modern medicine altogether, then we simply have to accept that the laws of natural selection are well and truly “neutralised”.

When he argues that caesarean sections result in more autistic children, then he is, as the Guardian points out, confusing correlation and causation. The paper quotes autism specialist Paul Wang:

“A foetus with developmental issues may have low muscle tone that can interfere with moving into proper position for natural delivery. In this and other ways, the foetus plays a crucial role in initiating and advancing natural labour.”

Don’t worry your pretty little heads about science

But suppose he’s right? Suppose caesarean sections were causing more children to be born with autism? What could we possibly do? Stop performing caesareans and allow babies and their mothers to die?

Obviously not. It’s difficult to see how the argument achieves anything other than to make pregnant women, bombarded with advice from all sides, even more worried than they already are. Odent is quoted as saying: “I put a caveat in my books – they are not for pregnant women. I tell them not to read them. They are books for people who are interested in the future of human beings – preferably ones with a scientific background, people interested in thinking in terms of the future and the future of the species. That’s the public I want to reach.”

In Odent’s mental Venn diagram, there is clearly no overlap between women who are scientists and women who are pregnant.

Pregnancy sickness is good, apparently

But Odent has form for this. While acknowledging that women used to die in childbirth before modern medicine, he accuses modern doctors of terrifying women through the use of medical terminology. In a 2013 interview with the Telegraph, he apparently “uses the example of dramatizing healthy morning sickness that indicates a thriving foetus into the much more serious condition of ‘Hyperemesis Gravidarum.’”

This sounds plausible until you meet a woman who has suffered hyperemesis to the extent where she is vomiting 24 hours a day, and cannot keep down anything, even a sip of water. Women die from untreated hyperemesis.

In the same article, Odent attacks the use of synthetic oxytocin which also, he argues (but with very little evidence), correlates with a rise in autism. (Autism has clearly become Odent’s thing.)

Odent wants us to believe he is motivated by genuine scientific curiosity. But in identifying intervention in childbirth, rather than, say, antibiotics or vaccines, as a threat to natural selection, we can see a more sinister agenda at work – a desire to turn the clock back to a time before modern medicine. Though only, of course, for women.

 

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Why forceps can be dangerous

 

Forceps deliveries and Ventouse deliveries are significantly more dangerous for both mother and baby than a caesarean section, according to new research published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. The risk of severe complications to the baby is 80% higher.

The study looked at 187,234 births. The main finding was that “among women with dystocia and prolonged second stage of labour, midpelvic operative vaginal delivery was associated with higher rates of severe perinatal morbidity and mortality compared with cesarean delivery.” To put it more simply, more babies died or were injured during an instrumental delivery than during a caesarean section. Although the study found that maternal mortality was no higher during an instrumental delivery, “rates of obstetric trauma” (this refers mainly to tearing) were higher.

This matters because in the UK, as in many other countries, there are moves to reduce the caesarean section rate, partly because caesareans are expensive, and partly because of the risks attached to abdominal surgery. The caesarean rate in this country is one in four, which many experts think is too high – and as a result, many hospitals now have “normal birth” targets.

The findings of the new research suggest that this drive is misguided. There have been a number of well-publicised cases over the past five years of babies dying after the mother was refused a caesarean section.

But there is a risk to the mother too. The Australian obstetrician Hans Peter Dietz has been outspoken about the target to reduce caesarean section rates in New South Wales, which has resulted in a huge increase in forceps deliveries, but also far more cases of women with severe pelvic floor and anal sphincter damage – something that can be absolutely devastating for women. Dr Dietz found that 81% of women who had forceps deliveries suffered internal damage.

Obviously there are caveats. A response to the research article by obstetrician Nicholas Pairaudeau argues that the decision to use or not use forceps should depend on factors such as the size of the woman’s pelvis and the positioning of the baby. He writes: “Even though I have used forceps for nearly 50 years I have, in my own practice, reduced many of the complications quoted, by careful selection of the patient, forceps, and type of pelvis. C-section is not a simple option in many cases, and is associated with major complications too.”

The question of risk in childbirth is never a simple one: often it’s a case of having to decide which is the lesser of two risky options. The worry is, however, that by setting a target to reduce caesareans, hospitals then become focused on the process rather than outcomes. A caesarean in itself is not a bad outcome: a dead or injured mother or baby is. Doctors’ decisions should be based entirely on whether they will lead to a healthy mother and baby – not on they meet an arbitrary external target.

We need better postnatal care – and Mumsnet is on the case

I’ve been delighted to see the mighty Mumsnet launch a campaign to improve postnatal care in hospitals. Women with postnatal PTSD often mention poor postnatal care as a contributing factor.

After a traumatic birth in which you have nearly died, or your baby has nearly died, or you have lost several pints of blood, or been in pain for hours but denied drugs, or experienced a violent forceps delivery, or had multiple painful stitches, or had a retained placenta, or an emergency c-section after the baby’s heartrate has dipped – or, as is often the case, a combination of several of those things – then it’s not unreasonable to imagine that you will be treated gently, with some kindness and consideration.

In practice, this is far from the case. When Mumsnet asked women to recount their experiences of postnatal care, they offered depressingly similar stories of being left for hours and hours unattended, often on a noisy postnatal ward, or refused help with breastfeeding, or not being given food and drink despite being too ill to get out of bed.

Some of this can be put down to staff being overworked, but the dismissive, unkind attitude that accompanies it cannot. In an article for the Independent last year, I wrote about Rachael, who after a deeply traumatic emergency c-section resulting from placental abruption, was told by a midwife: “Don’t go thinking you’re anything special – we see bigger abruptions than you had.”

A new blogpost describes an experience that is all too typical. The writer, who blogs under the name IslandLiving, recounts an immensely difficult labour ending in c-section. Left alone with her baby afterwards, she felt petrified. She goes on:

“I stayed in a side room for two days. In those two days I struggled. I felt overwhelmed and scared. I was petrified. I was told to ring the bell, that I was not to pick up my baby myself. Yet every time I rang the bell no one came. Every time I cried for help no one came. I struggled out of bed because that was my job. I struggled to feed her because that was my job. I struggled to change her because that was my job. Yet, I didn’t know if I was doing my job properly. I didn’t know if she was getting any milk. I needed help and it didn’t come. The nights were the worse as I would feel alone, like I was ringing a bell into the great abyss. No one ever came.”

IslandLiving says, generously, that she doesn’t blame the nurses or the midwives because the unit was understaffed. But it depends whether you see caring for a woman after she’s given birth as a fundamental part of the job or not. If it’s not – if adequate postnatal care is simply a “nice to have” rather than an absolutely essential part of the midwife role – why expect women to stay in hospital at all? Why not send them straight home?

Apart from being inhumane, skimping on postnatal care makes no sense economically, because it so often leads to physical or mental health problems that need treatment. One of the women quoted by Mumsnet wrote that she asked for help cleaning round her episiotomy scar, but was told not to worry because “it’s a dirty part of the body anyway”. She ended up with a major infection.

Poor care isn’t inevitable: a few Mumsnetters gave examples of excellent care. It’s high time that other maternity units followed suit.

Should we think of birth as normal, or as dangerous?

 

A few weeks ago I gave a talk to a group of health professionals about the impact of a traumatic birth on relationships. At the end of the talk, an obstetrician in the audience took me gently to task for using the phrase “when birth goes wrong”: problems such as retained placenta or postpartum haemorrhage were so commonplace, she said, that they were a routine part of the experience, rather than a sign of something going wrong. She added: “The day she gives birth is – apart from the day she’s born – the most dangerous day of a woman’s life.”

It was a striking comment, and one I’ve been thinking about ever since. There is an alternative view of childbirth, which is that it’s a “normal, physiological process”. It’s a view that’s endorsed by the Royal College of Midwives (RCM), and some NHS trusts have appointed midwives to act as “normal birth leads”, helping women to “achieve” a normal birth. Many midwives believes that an important part of their job is to support women to give birth “normally” – that is, without a caesarean section or intervention such as forceps or Ventouse. Proponents of normal childbirth would argue that an over-cautious approach to risk is in itself damaging, leading to unnecessary interventions that result in a more traumatic experience for mother and baby.

Childbirth is possibly unique amongst medical specialisms in that it is dominated by two professional groups who to some extent have competing views of what the job is about. Obstetricians see risk and danger; their job is to make sure that mother and baby come out of the process alive and, ideally, unharmed. Midwives see their job as supporting women to do what their bodies are designed to do: women have, after all, given birth for the entirety of human existence, and are therefore quite capable of doing so today.

You can see, of course, that both arguments have merit. Lots of women do have straightforward births, with minimal intervention. In the past, certainly, unnecessary medical intervention (the eagerness to induce labour, or speed it up artificially, or to give women episiotomies as a matter of routine, or to force them to give birth lying down) worked against the female body’s ability to do what it is designed to do, which is to push a baby out.

On the other hand, you can’t deny that, left to labour without intervention, things don’t always go according to plan: the baby is in an awkward position, or the birth canal is too narrow, or the baby’s shoulder gets stuck on the way out, or the placenta is retained and the woman haemorrhages.

Are women’s expectations too high? Or too low?

I hesitate to suggest there should be a happy medium, because I don’t know what a happy medium would look like. But what bothers me about all this is that women are caught in the middle of two competing narratives. Obstetricians at the talk I gave expressed the view that the reason some women find birth traumatic is that their expectations are too high: they think that they can give birth “normally”, with minimum intervention, and are then disappointed to find that that isn’t the case.

But where does that expectation come from? Not, surely, from an innate sense of hubris or over-confidence, but from imbibing the message that it’s possible to achieve a normal, problem-free childbirth by taking a positive mental attitude: if you believe in your own body’s capacity to give birth, the argument goes, then you’re much more likely to have the birth you want than if you approach it fearfully.

Thus are women caught in a Catch-22: going into birth in the hope and expectation that your experience will be “normal” means that you are more likely to be traumatised when things don’t work out as planned; going into birth with an awareness of all the potential problems and risks mean potentially that your own feelings of fear and anxiety will make the experience more difficult and painful.

And women get the blame. Women’s choices are mocked: they are “too posh to push”, for example, or they are “selfish” for wanting a home birth, free of intervention. They are naïve or silly for imagining they can give birth naturally; or they are wasting the NHS’s money by demanding a planned caesarean. A woman’s place is in the wrong, James Thurber once wrote: and if we’re talking about giving birth, then Thurber hit the nail squarely on the head.

 

 

 

 

When childbirth goes badly wrong: one woman’s account

Nilufer Atik has written a striking account of her experience of PTSD after childbirth. Atik was in labour for 53 hours, after which she was given an emergency caesarean.

But it shouldn’t have happened like that. Atik’s labour started with contractions that were “sharp and hard, beginning four minutes apart and lasting between 50 to 90 seconds each time.” The hospital – St George’s in Tooting – told her not to come in because she wasn’t in active labour. She stayed at home in increasing pain for 19 hours until eventually she could stand it no longer. At hospital:

“I was taken to a pre-delivery bay and more torturous hours passed with the contractions increasing in intensity and frequency. I cried out for pain relief and was given the powerful painkiller pethidine four times (most women are only allowed two injections) but it did little to help. With no sleep, food or water, and feeling so exhausted I could barely speak, I became fearful that, if the baby did come, I wouldn’t have the energy to push him out.”

She was eventually given an epidural, followed by a caesarean section when the baby appeared in distress. But the most remarkable part of her story is this:

“Poor Milo was in a bad birthing position with his back against mine and his head hyperextended. It meant not only that my labour was much more painful than it should have been, but I would never have been able to deliver him vaginally. His head was blocking my cervix from dilating, which was why I was having contractions for so long with no progress.”

The time that Atik spent in labour was wasted – physiologically, she wasn’t able to give birth. Why staff at St George’s didn’t realise this is an interesting question, but it may have been to do with the fact that when Atik arrived at the hospital in labour, the maternity ward was extremely busy.

Two weeks ago an NCT survey found that, in the Guardian’s words, “A chronic shortage of midwives across the UK means women in labour are left feeling unsafe and frightened or as if they are being treated ‘like cattle’ or ‘on a conveyor belt’.” It’s not just lack of midwives, it’s a lack of space: one woman even described giving birth on the antenatal ward, because there was no room on the delivery ward.

It’s been said so often that NHS services are at breaking point that perhaps nobody takes it seriously any more. But cases like Atik’s show that the seriousness and the urgency of the problem. When midwives are overworked, the quality of care for women is never going to be good enough. Women will suffer unnecessarily, as Atik did, and may as a result experience physical trauma or psychological trauma that will need treatment later on. Sometimes, babies will die.

 

 

What should the RCOG advise women about risk?

The Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists (RCOG) is to consider giving pregnant women advice about the relative risks of vaginal births and caesarean sections, according to the New Scientist.

The magazine reports that the RCOG has been prompted to look at the issue by a 2015 UK Supreme court ruling awarding damages for a baby who sustained brain damage during a vaginal delivery. The report continues:

“The plaintiff had a higher than usual risk of having a difficult birth, due to having a small pelvis and diabetes. But doctors didn’t inform her of these increased risks – an act of ‘medical paternalism’, said the presiding judge, who decided in the mother’s favour.”

A decision by the RCOG to warn women of the risks of vaginal birth will be controversial, because vaginal birth is the default option – this is how babies are supposed to be born. When it goes well, a vaginal birth is much easier for a woman to recover from than a caesarean. It seems to be better for the baby too (though the evidence isn’t completely clear-cut).

But of course, not all vaginal births go well and, as the article states, the risks of injury to a woman’s pelvic floor muscles increase as she gets older. Many women are now having first babies in their 30s and 40s, making them more susceptible to injury than younger women. The article points out that older women are also more likely to need emergency caesareans, which carry higher risks than planned caesareans.

The big problem is that decisions to do with birth are not black-and-white: they’re all about assessing relative risk. Some older women have straightforward, uncomplicated vaginal births. Some younger women require emergency caesareans or have difficult forceps deliveries.

In an ideal world, health professionals would be able to assess factors such as a woman’s age, general health, pelvic size and position of baby and advise her of the most sensible course of action accordingly. Until someone collects and analyses the data, however, we can’t confidently predict what combination of risk factors mean that a woman will find it difficult to give birth vaginally.

When women talk about their experience of birth trauma, some report being coerced into having a caesarean (usually an emergency caesarean) when they wanted to continue trying for a vaginal birth, while others who wanted a caesarean have been forced against their will to attempt – or continue attempting – a vaginal delivery. Both are traumatic, and both can result in physical and mental health problems. The worry is that sometimes the advice given to women is driven not necessarily by what’s best for them and their baby but by targets, ideology or a desire to save money.

So where does this leave the RCOG? My view is that they should make women aware of the likely risks both of planned caesarean and of vaginal birth (and also that the risks of attempted vaginal birth include an emergency caesarean). Women should be allowed the opportunity to make decisions based on the best available evidence.

Caesarean sections – a feminist issue?

A Canadian doctor has provocatively argued that women should be able to choose to deliver their babies by planned caesarean section. (Normally women are only offered a planned section if they have particular obstetric problems that would make it dangerous to deliver vaginally.)

Dr Magnus Murphy treats pelvic floor dysfunction – bladder and bowel problems often caused by a vaginal delivery. He is quoted as saying: “There are a lot of women who do feel that the feminist movement has dropped the ball on this.” Murphy adds that the feminist movement has allied itself to the movement for natural childbirth, abandoning women who might want a caesarean section.

Is he right? Well, last month the outspoken Australian obstetrician Hans Peter Dietz presented research at the International Continence Society in Montreal showing that “between 20 and 30 per cent of first-time mothers having a vaginal birth will suffer severe and often permanent damage to their pelvic floor and anal sphincter muscles”.

Dietz notes that in New South Wales, the rate of forceps birth has doubled in 10 years as the result of attempts to reduce the caesarean rate – with the result that women experience much more physical damage.

His colleague Elizabeth Skinner interviewed women who had suffered traumatic vaginal deliveries and found that two-thirds suffered PTSD symptoms. She, like Murphy, believes that feminists need a change of heart: “Previously feminists fought to return control to women giving birth. This is still true but the new 21st Century feminist issue is ensuring that women are correctly assessed for their risk of complications and given full and frank information to prevent such injuries.”

For a very long time, women in the 20th century fought to regain control of childbirth from the medical profession. Childbirth was as a medical process in which doctors were in complete charge: instead of being allowed to give birth naturally, to walk about, to squat, to give birth in their own time, women were strapped to delivery tables with legs in stirrups forced to have episiotomies and epidurals, hooked up to monitors, passively waiting for their baby to be delivered by an obstetrician. Feminists did an important job in rescuing childbirth, in making sure that women could give birth unfettered, undrugged and free to move about as they wish. It has, for many women, been an empowering experience.

And yet, could Murphy and Dietz be right? Babies are getting bigger, and for some women childbirth is a long, arduous and painful experience. Having to deliver a baby in a way that permanently damages your pelvic floor and may even leave you incontinent doesn’t seem like such a great victory for feminism. Neither does it seem particularly “natural” or “normal”, epithets that are often applied to the process of vaginal birth.

When you’ve fought to take control of birth back from the medical profession, caesarean sections, which put the process entirely in the hands of surgeons, can feel like a retrograde step. And yet if it is a choice freely made by a woman who doesn’t want to risk long-term injury and incontinence, isn’t that a choice that feminists should be fighting for?