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Outcry Continues Over First-Baby-Born-in-Decade Derby : Birth: Are deadline deliveries unhealthy? Some experts say that, as a rule, babies should determine arrival time, not doctors or parents.


A decades-old tradition--the New Year's Day baby derby--was in full swing this Jan. 1, and as usual, parents, doctors and hospitals alike were working hard to win it.

In a Fountain Valley hospital, the clock ticked toward midnight as a 28-year-old woman tried mightily to push her baby into the world. But as her doctor eyed the clock, she was suddenly ordered to "hold it!" while a radio announcer counted down the final seconds of 1989--and only then was she once again told to "push!" At 20 seconds after midnight, 9-pound, 7-ounce Michelle Tran was born, briefly believed to be the first baby of 1990 for Orange and Los Angeles counties.

But wait: Five seconds earlier a 6-pound, 12-ounce girl was born in an Anaheim birthing center, delivered by a general practitioner who used forceps to pull the newborn out in an effort to deliver the first baby of the decade. He immediately tucked the baby in a Christmas stocking and rushed her next door to show her off to 4,000 people at the Melodyland religious service.

And at the same moment in Tarzana, a physician was in the middle of performing a Cesarean section that resulted in twin boys, one born a minute before midnight, the other a minute after.

There are prizes in this obstetrical version of "Beat the Clock"--publicity for obstetricians and their hospitals, celebrity status for the lucky infant and, for the parents, sometimes a shower of gifts ranging from diapers and infant formula to college scholarships.

But recently, medical leaders have criticized the "circus" atmosphere surrounding some of these births.

Joining them were medical ethicists, feminists and advocates of natural birthing methods who worry that tampering with the birth process--either by significantly slowing it down, speeding it up or scheduling a Cesarean section for convenience rather than medical necessity--could be risky.

Doctors note that deliveries scheduled primarily for convenience are still rare--and expressly forbidden by guidelines from the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Also, after reading press accounts of this New Year's stroke-of-midnight births, many doctors said they did not believe most of the Jan. 1 deliveries in Southern California were particularly dangerous.

Still, the race for "the baby of the decade" produced widespread concern.

"I don't think we should take something as serious as the birth of a baby into a contest," said Dr. William G. Plested, a Santa Monica cardiovascular surgeon who is president of the California Medical Assn. "The primary interest of the physician should be the protection of his patients, both the mother and child."

Agreed University of Minnesota bioethicist Arthur Caplan, "Anything that is done for reasons other than the health of the patient is not consistent with good medical ethics."

Special Deliveries

It is risky to engage in practices that could lead to something worse, Caplan said.

" 'Let's push at 11:59' could lead to inducing labor at 10 so we get a delivery at 12:01," he said. "There's some danger that what starts out as cute or humanitarian might slide into getting competitive and dangerous."

Actually, the practice of scheduling deliveries for reasons beyond the medical ones is an old one, doctors and patients said.

They cited births that have been arranged to coincide with a doctor's office hours, a mother-to-be's "lucky day" or a father's desire to take a year-end tax deduction.

There is also a widespread suspicion, roundly denied by obstetricians, that timed births benefit doctors who have season tickets to sporting or theatrical events, said Jay Hathaway of Sherman Oaks, executive director of a national group promoting a child birth method called the Bradley Method.

But pregnant women--some of them quite prominent--have often demanded carefully timed deliveries themselves.

Marilyn Quayle, the vice president's wife, reportedly told her doctor to induce labor around the due date of her first child to ensure she would be able to take a scheduled bar exam. As a result, friends said, with her son newly delivered, the new mother took her exam seated gingerly on a rubber doughnut cushion.

England's Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, also had her baby early, reportedly because she was tired of being pregnant. Told that her labor probably would not start for three or four more days, the 28-year-old wife of Prince Andrew had her labor induced, delivering a 6-pound, 12-ounce baby Aug. 8, 1988--or 8/8/88--a date numerologists promptly declared as the luckiest in the century.

Induced labor for convenience came into vogue in the United States during the 1960s and early 1970s, experts on maternal health said, after the discovery that the drugs oxytocin and Pitocin could speed up labor.

During that era, one Philadelphia mother-to-be said she found herself an unwitting guinea pig for "speeded-up labor" 17 years ago when she entered a birthing center on Christmas Day to deliver her third son.

Deadline Pressure

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