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Article in The New Yorker on Childbirth

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Friday, November 03, 2006

Interesting, and VERY long article on childbirth in the U.S. and the development of the Apgar score. (hat tip to doulicia for spotting this)

Read the full article

I never knew how it came about or why, but it's kind of a neat story and the article has some interesting commentary...

Throughout her career, the work she loved most was providing anesthesia for child deliveries. But she was appalled by the poor care that many newborns received. Babies who were born malformed or too small or just blue and not breathing well were listed as stillborn, placed out of sight, and left to die. They were believed to be too sick to live. Apgar believed otherwise, but she had no authority to challenge the conventions. She was not an obstetrician, and she was a female in a male world. So she took a less direct, but ultimately more powerful, approach: she devised a score.

The score was published in 1953, and it transformed child delivery. It turned an intangible and impressionistic clinical concept—the condition of a newly born baby—into a number that people could collect and compare. Using it required observation and documentation of the true condition of every baby. Moreover, even if only because doctors are competitive, it drove them to want to produce better scores—and therefore better outcomes—for the newborns they delivered.

It also has some sharp criticism of the Obstetrics model...

Ask most research physicians how a profession can advance, and they will talk about the model of “evidence-based medicine”—the idea that nothing ought to be introduced into practice unless it has been properly tested and proved effective by research centers, preferably through a double-blind, randomized controlled trial. But, in a 1978 ranking of medical specialties according to their use of hard evidence from randomized clinical trials, obstetrics came in last. Obstetricians did few randomized trials, and when they did they ignored the results.

And shares why the Apgar Score, which originally helped improve results, eventually led to a common problem with the profession...way too many c-sections...

The question facing obstetrics was this: Is medicine a craft or an industry? If medicine is a craft, then you focus on teaching obstetricians to acquire a set of artisanal skills—the Woods corkscrew maneuver for the baby with a shoulder stuck, the Lovset maneuver for the breech baby, the feel of a forceps for a baby whose head is too big. You do research to find new techniques. You accept that things will not always work out in everyone’s hands.

But if medicine is an industry, responsible for the safest possible delivery of millions of babies each year, then the focus shifts. You seek reliability. You begin to wonder whether forty-two thousand obstetricians in the U.S. could really master all these techniques. You notice the steady reports of terrible forceps injuries to babies and mothers, despite the training that clinicians have received. After Apgar, obstetricians decided that they needed a simpler, more predictable way to intervene when a laboring mother ran into trouble. They found it in the Cesarean section.

This procedure, once a rarity, is now commonplace. Whereas before obstetricians learned one technique for a foot dangling out, another for a breech with its arms above its head, yet another for a baby with its head jammed inside the pelvis, all tricky in their own individual ways, now the solution is the same almost regardless of the problem: the C-section. Every obstetrician today is comfortable doing a C-section. The procedure is performed with impressive consistency.

Finally, a few other interesting and sometimes scary passages...

A measure of how safe Cesareans have become is that there is ferocious but genuine debate about whether a mother in the thirty-ninth week of pregnancy with no special risks should be offered a Cesarean delivery as an alternative to waiting for labor. The idea seems the worst kind of hubris. How could a Cesarean delivery be considered without even trying a natural one? Surgeons don’t suggest that healthy people should get their appendixes taken out or that artificial hips might be stronger than the standard-issue ones. Our complication rates for even simple procedures remain distressingly high. Yet in the next decade or so the industrial revolution in obstetrics could make Cesarean delivery consistently safer than the birth process that evolution gave us.


And yet there’s something disquieting about the fact that childbirth is becoming so readily surgical. Some hospitals are already doing Cesarean sections in more than half of child deliveries. It is not mere nostalgia to find this disturbing. We are losing our connection to yet another natural process of life. And we are seeing the waning of the art of childbirth. The skill required to bring a child in trouble safely through a vaginal delivery, however unevenly distributed, has been nurtured over centuries. In the medical mainstream, it will soon be lost.


In a sense, there is a tyranny to the score. Against the score for a newborn child, the mother’s pain and blood loss and length of recovery seem to count for little. We have no score for how the mother does, beyond asking whether she lived or not—no measure to prod us to improve results for her, too. Yet this imbalance, at least, can surely be righted. If the child’s well-being can be measured, why not the mother’s, too? Indeed, we need an Apgar score for everyone who encounters medicine: the psychiatry patient, the patient on the hospital ward, the person going through an operation, and the mother in childbirth.

Interesting...all very interesting. I think the main thing that I took away from this though was the concept of vaginal birth becoming a lost art. I guess in part, I never really thought about the skill it takes to allow a vaginal delivery to progress. After all, if you don't know what's normal, you can't identify what's wrong either. The point about c-sections becoming the answer to all problems also shows the danger that we're in of being able to handle even MINOR complications of vaginal birth. How long before the medical community loses even MORE skills and the c-section rate skyrockets even further?

Thank God for midwives.

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  1. Anonymous Jax | 1:00 PM |  

    I read that a little while ago, and while I thought overall it was a fascinating piece, it did bring home to me how many ppl died unnecessarily in childbirth and really not all that long ago. So while there is a balance to be had, medical intervention is not all bad :)

  2. Blogger one smarmy mama | 8:54 AM |  


    I'm totally blown away. Thanks for posting.

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