After an emergency cesarean with her first baby, Ruby Wales was holding out for a vaginal birth with her second one.
With a toddler underfoot, the 33-year-old Mission Viejo woman wanted a faster recovery. But finding a physician to deliver her second child wasn't easy. Her first obstetrician turned her down flat. "She said, 'No -- no way,' " Wales recalled.
Once reserved for cases in which the life of the baby or mother was in danger, the cesarean is now routine. The most common operation in the U.S., it is performed in 31% of births, up from 4.5% in 1965.
With that surge has come an explosion in medical bills, an increase in complications -- and a reconsideration of the cesarean as a sometimes unnecessary risk.
It is a big reason childbirth often is held up in healthcare reform debates as an example of how the intensive and expensive U.S. brand of medicine has failed to deliver better results and may, in fact, be doing more harm than good.
"We're going in the wrong direction," said Dr. Roger A. Rosenblatt, a University of Washington professor of family medicine who has written about what he calls the "perinatal paradox," in which more intervention, such as cesareans, is linked with declining outcomes, such as neonatal intensive care admissions. Maternity care, he said, "is a microcosm of the entire medical enterprise."
As the No. 1 cause of hospital admissions, childbirth is a huge part of the nation's $2.4-trillion annual healthcare expenditure, accounting in hospital charges alone for more than $79 billion.
Because spending on the average uncomplicated cesarean for all patients runs about $4,500, nearly twice as much as a comparable vaginal birth, cesareans account for a disproportionate amount (45%) of delivery costs. (Among privately insured patients, uncomplicated cesareans run about $13,000.)
Pregnancy is the most expensive condition for both private insurers and Medicaid, according to a 2008 report by the Childbirth Connection, a New York think tank.
"The financial toll of maternity care on private [insurers]/employers and Medicaid/taxpayers is especially large," the report said. "Maternity care thus plays a considerable role in escalating healthcare costs, which increasingly threaten the financial stability of families, employers, and federal and state budgets."
The cesarean rate in the U.S. is higher than in most other developed nations. And in spite of a standing government goal of reducing such deliveries, the U.S. has set a new record every year for more than a decade.
The problem, experts say, is that the cesarean -- delivery via uterine incision -- exposes a woman to the risk of infection, blood clots and other serious problems. Cesareans also have been shown to increase premature births and the need for intensive care for newborns. Even without such complications, cesareans result in longer hospital stays.
Inducing childbirth -- bringing on or hastening labor with the drug oxytocin -- also is on the rise and is another source of growing concern. Experts say miscalculations often result in the delivery of infants who are too young to breathe on their own. Induction, studies show, also raises the risk of complications that lead to cesareans.
Despite all this intervention -- and, many believe, because of it -- childbirth in the U.S. doesn't measure up. The U.S. lags behind other developed nations on key performance indicators including infant mortality and birth weight.
And in at least two areas, the U.S. has lost ground after decades of improvement: The maternal death rate began to rise in 2002, and the typical American newborn is delivered at 39 weeks, down from the full 40. Public health experts view the trends with alarm.
At a recent conference held by Childbirth Connection, physicians, employers, insurers and hospital operators wrestled with the disappointing data and discussed thorny questions, such as whether insurers should stop paying more for cesareans than for vaginal births.
"Cesarean birth ends up being a profit center in hospitals, so there's not a lot of incentive to reduce them," said Dr. Elliot Main, chief of obstetrics for Sutter Health, a Northern California hospital chain.
But there is a lot that hospitals can do to reduce them, as illustrated by the wide variation in cesarean rates. Among California hospitals, cesareans range from 16% to 62% of births.
Such variation means a lot of women are getting unnecessary cesareans, Main said. "There's no justification for that kind of variation."
The surge in cesareans may owe more to celebrity magazines than medical journals. After word got out that Victoria "Posh Spice" Beckham had three, physicians reported a surge in requests for such deliveries, dubbed the "too posh to push" bump.
Physicians, too, have been blamed for failing to make women fully aware of the consequences of cesareans, and for promoting them for convenience.