Trying to Take Back Childbirth

Hospital Costs Spiraling

So, too, have hospital costs spiraled, and doctors say the first cuts are in obstetrical care. Hospitals in many parts of the country can now be sued for malpractice, further eroding support for what is perceived as the economic risk of natural childbirth.

"Childbirth doesn't get the attention and respect it should," Sachs told

But he said it isn't only doctors driving the medicalization of pregnancy, but women themselves.

Many women are having their babies older, necessitating more Caesarean sections for high-risk pregnancies. Younger women who fear the pain or the cosmetic consequences of a vaginal birth pre-plan a Caesarean with their doctor's blessing.

"The question is, has it done harm to women or the experience of childbirth?" Sachs asked. "Positive things are coming out of this. There is a concentration on patient safety and reducing medical errors."

But a national survey by Childbirth Connection found just one incidence in 1,600 of a planned c-section, for no underlying medical reason. The non-profit also said the rate of Caesareans is going up in all groups of birthing women.

"The American healthcare system is increasingly dependent upon medical interventions to address what is, most often, a normal and safe physiological process," said Rebecca Benghiat, executive director of the New Space for Women's Health in New York City, where the Caesarean rate has just hit 31 percent of all births.

"Quite often, women are not fully informed of the risks associated with commonly performed obstetrical interventions, nor do they know there are options beyond hospital birth," she said.

But, childbirth advocates say that for women with uncomplicated and low-risk pregnancies, a natural birth can be safe.

"This is a big mess and no one is sure how we got there," said Erica Lyon, director of the education center RealBirth in New York City and author of the "The Big Book of Birth."

"We had a wonderful movement in the 1970s when women wanted to take control of their bodies," she told "When we got to the eighties, we assumed it was fixed. But it wasn't."

Today, about 95 percent of all births occur in hospitals, 3 percent in birthing centers and only 1 percent at home, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. About 6 percent of all births are attended by midwives, but those numbers are dropping as their liability insurance rises.

Natural childbirth experts say they have seen a modest increase in interest in natural childbirth following a recent film by actress Ricki Lake, who gave birth at home with the help of a midwife.

Lyon charges that hospitals have "no standards of practice," bowing to the demands of overburdened doctors and women who don't understand the benefits of natural childbirth -- quicker recovery time, better baby bonding and more successful breastfeeding.

"It's good technology, but we do it over-aggressively," she said. "What we tend to do is treat it as an absolute rather than with a tiny bit of healthy skepticism."

But natural "means different things to different people," according to Dr. Lauren Streicher, an obstetrician gynecologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, who said current medical practices are safe and what women want.

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