Cesarean Section Rates: Standard of Care or Standard of Fear and the Potential Impact of the Affordable Care Act

by John Zen Jackson and Cecylia K. Hahn

A recent New York Times article reported the filing of a lawsuit on behalf of a Staten Island woman alleging a forced cesarean section.  This may provide an impetus to look – once again – at the high rate of cesarean section deliveries and perhaps take the initiative to bring about some reforms within the context of reimbursement policy and the Affordable Care Act.

The concerns regarding cesarean section rates involve both the initial or primary delivery of a woman’s baby and the handling of repeat pregnancies.   In particular, controversy persists regarding vaginal birth after cesareans, the so-called VBAC procedure.  For a number of years, the cesarean section rate in New   Jersey has been in excess of 30% and approaching 40%.   The rate for c-sections in repeat pregnancies where the primary delivery was by c-section may even be higher, and the common belief is that once a woman delivers by c-section, she is destined to deliver all subsequent children by the same method.  According to some scales, New Jersey has the second highest cesarean section rate in the United States.  A 2009 publication of the World Health Organization stated that the acceptable level of cesarean section births is “not more than 15%.”  The United States Public Health Service had a similar target figure in 1998.

The New York lawsuit presents a number of challenging issues involving patient autonomy, bioethical standards, and the balancing of the sometimes divergent interests of mother and unborn child.  A published opinion of the New Jersey Appellate Division in Draper v. Jasionowski, 372 N.J. Super. 368, 858 A.2d 1141 (2004), recognized a duty on the part of the obstetrician to not only the pregnant mother but to her unborn child in the context of informed consent and the possibility of a cesarean section as opposed to a vaginal birth.   As a result of the vaginal birth in that case, the child developed an Erb’s palsy and suffered hypoxia and brain damage.  In contrast, the patient in the New York case had previously given birth by cesarean section procedures but wished to have a vaginal delivery for this child.  She refused consent.  The attending physicians explicitly “overrode” her decision and did the cesarean section because of the fetus being “at risk for serious harm without the C-section.”  There was an injury to her bladder in the course of the operation but a healthy child was born.

The decision-making leading to the performance of a cesarean section has many facets.    There are a number of clinical situations that present risk to the well-being of the fetus.  But there are times when c-sections have been done for the convenience of either the laboring mother or the attending physician.  The availability of staffing in some hospitals has also come into play.  Nonetheless, there are a number of studies that have demonstrated that the medical-legal concern of liability exposure influences the judgment of many physicians so as to lower the threshold for doing the operation.  See, e.g., Minkoff, Fear of litigation and cesarean section rates, 36 Semin. Perinatol. 390 (2012); Yang, Mello, Subramanian, & Studdert, Relationship between malpractice litigation pressure and rates of cesarean section and vaginal birth after cesarean section, 47 Med. Care 234 (2009).

The impact of the Affordable Care Act on malpractice claims remains to be seen.  In the view of some, the number of claims will increase as the number of people using healthcare services expand.  On the other hand, there are those who believe that fewer patients will need to bring claims because they will now have a means for covering the expense of their injury claims.  Medical malpractice reform is barely mentioned in the Affordable Care Act. Section 6801 articulates the nonbinding “sense of the Senate,” and recognized that health care reform presented an opportunity to address issues related to medical malpractice and “encouraged” States to develop and test alternatives to the existing civil litigation system to improve patient safety, reduce medical errors, and stimulate efficiency in the resolution of disputes while preserving an individual’s right to seek redress through the courts. Moreover, Section 10607 provides potential federal grant money to support demonstration or pilot programs to develop alternatives to tort litigation.

The many evolving changes being implemented through the Affordable Care Act make it likely that the malpractice aspect of healthcare will also change.  And change brings opportunity.

The issue of cesarean section rates can be one of these opportunities.

One path to consider involves effective use of Clinical Practice Guidelines (CPGs), an approach considered in the past but meriting renewed evaluation.   There are several underlying assumptions necessary for practice guidelines to exert influence in the context of litigation.  They have to be developed for conditions or procedures that frequently lead to events for which negligence claims are filed.  They have to be widely accepted in the medical profession and fully integrated into clinical practice.  They also must be straightforward and readily interpreted in a litigation setting.  Proposals have been advanced to give CPGs a role in medical malpractice litigation in several different ways. One requires that courts take judicial notice of CPGs as the standard of care, with deviations conclusively establishing negligence. An alternative and more sensible approach would have compliance with CPGs constitute an affirmative defense for physicians, but that deviations from CPGs should not be used as inculpatory evidence.  See, e.g., Bovbjerg & Berenson, The Value of Clinical Practice Guidelines as Malpractice “Safe Harbors,” Timely Analysis of Immediate Health Policy Issues: Urban Institute (2012);  Mello, Of Swords and Shields: The Role of Clinical Practice Guidelines in Medical Malpractice Litigation, 149 U. Penn. L.Rev. 645 (2001).  The increasing recognition of Evidence-Based Medicine holds out hope that effective CPGs could be developed with regard to the indication and non-indications for cesarean section procedures.

Another possibility involves reimbursement policy.  This might take several forms.  One might involve financial disincentives for elective cesarean sections, those performed before 39 weeks of gestation without a documented medical indication for the procedure.  Payments for a planned VBAC delivery that nonetheless become a cesarean section might be limited to centers that have a demonstrated adequate staffing and resources for these procedures.

There is a compelling public health need to explore and resolve the issue of cesarean section rates.  Babies born by Cesarean section are more likely to have breathing problems and to develop several chronic diseases, childhood-onset diabetes, allergies with cold-like symptoms and asthma.  The surgery presents risks to the mother, including infection, blood clots, wound healing problems, prolonged recovery, and permanent scarring.  That the New Jersey cesarean section rate of greater than 30% is not a necessary circumstance is manifested by the fact that in a few counties the section rate occurs in one out of four births.  One must wonder why.


State of New Jersey, Department of Health, Safety and Quality in Maternity Care available at http://www.state.nj.us/health/fhs/professional/safequality.shtml

State of New Jersey, Department of Health – Maternal & Child Health Epidemiology: Cesarean Delivery: Comparing New Jersey Hospitals, 2012 available at http://www.state.nj.us/health/fhs/professional/documents/cdh_explanation.pdf