The United States is already the butt of jokes in the international public health community. We spend more on health care than any other high-income nation, while simultaneously serving the lowest percentage of pregnant women, as several of our key health indicators continue to decline each year. According to Eugene Declercq of the Boston University School of Public Health, the U.S. now has the highest number of maternal deaths relative to all other high-income nations, and we also rank second worst for perinatal deaths.
The U.S. has not reported a significant decrease in maternal mortality rates since 1982, and the Center for Health Statistics indicates that the rate of cesarean section in this country is now at a whopping 32 percent, marking the 11th consecutive year of increase. As the incidence of cesarean section rates rise, so do medical complications for mothers and babies, along with associated health care costs. The World Health Organization recommends a cesarean rate of no more than 10 to 15 percent, so our rate is two to three times higher than it should be.
We know that 99 percent of women in the U.S. are giving birth in hospitals, yet the United States has one of the highest infant mortality rates of any developed country, with 6.3 deaths per 1,000 babies born. Meanwhile, the Netherlands, where one-third of deliveries occur in the home with the assistance of midwives, has a lower rate of 4.73 deaths per 1,000.
While maternal mortality rates decreased among our peer nations between 2000 and 2005, they increased by more than 54 percent in the United States during the same time period. The two major differences between the U.S. and other nations, which have superior maternal and infant health outcomes, are that the latter offer universal health care and rely more extensively on cost-effective midwives as a public health strategy.
Consider the economics of the situation. The cost of a cesarean in the United States is about $15,000 and an uncomplicated vaginal birth averages $8,000 (without prenatal or postpartum care), while homebirth midwives charge $2,000 to $4,000 -- a fee that includes care from conception through the postpartum period. Exploring the option of home and birth center birth with midwives for low-risk women should be at the core of national health care reform and research. Instead, several generations of high-tech, low-touch birth and a pervasive cultural belief that birth is imminently dangerous -- even in healthy, low-risk women -- has led to powerful cultural blinders that limit options for women.
In anthropology, we say that "normal is simply what you are used to." The power of socialization and the dominance of biomedicine have kept us from systematically examining a variety of birthing environments and providers as viable alternatives to the expensive and interventive hospital delivery that has become the norm in the U.S.