This has been used as the nail in the coffin of the homebirth debate. Opponents of homebirth will often concede that homebirths create a better experience for the mother, but usually present this benefit as carrying a much higher risk of death for the baby. In particularly vitriolic debates, this where the “selfish mother” accusation kicks in.
It’s not entirely true.
Which is why it’s important to go straight to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists Bulletin No. 697 from April 2017.
What does ACOG Bulletin No. 697 Say About Homebirth?
ACOG’s Bulletin No. 697 is (in my opinion) a relatively balanced assessment of the research on homebirth. One of the first things that ACOG states is that high quality evidence comparing hospital birth and homebirth outcomes is limited. The “gold standard” in medical and scientific research is the randomized control trial (RCT) and this is almost impossible to pull off with birthing practices. A RCT is where you randomly assign your participants to receive one or the other treatment/intervention/ experience. So in the case of homebirth and hospital birth outcomes, we would need thousands of women who honestly don’t care whether they give birth in a hospital or at home. In developed nations where homebirth is more common than in the US, attempts have been made at conducting a RCT. But these have failed to launch because women were unwilling to have their birth experience be assigned at random.
Birth is also one of those things that is very hard not to affect by location and mother’s preference. It’s not like a surgical procedure where you can put your patient under anesthesia and implement certain procedures. Women who feel threatened during labor will often have a stalled labor as their body releases catecholamines in response to the stress. So whether it’s at home or in a hospital, the woman who wants to be birthing somewhere else is going to have a poorer outcome than the woman who feels safe where she is birthing. So a RCT is really not going to be a possibility. This leaves us with observational studies.
Observational studies present a number of problems. Some are so small that they can’t give us a picture of what homebirth would entail on a large scale. Many rely on birth certificate data— which is notoriously inaccurate. For example, when it says there was an attendant at the birth, was it a husband, boyfriend, neighbor, CPM, DEM, old hippie lady, CNM, paramedic, naturopath…? Often, the birth certificate doesn’t specify what “attendant” means. Sometimes the studies don’t differentiate between planned and unplanned homebirths very well— a big problem because a woman who gives birth suddenly at home because of an emergency is in a different situation than a woman who has a full-term, spontaneous birth with a qualified attendant there. And it’s also hard to ascertain whether complications resulted from care during a transfer to after transfer to a hospital. ACOG does point out that there have been some studies from other countries where home birth is well-integrated into the hospital system and these studies have been high quality. Unfortunately, the results of these studies aren’t necessarily what we would see in America because homebirth tends to operate on a fringe here instead of being a part of the normal system of birth care. But all that being said, ACOG says that there are some common threads that emerge from observational studies on homebirth where the neonatal mortality rates are comparable to those in hospitals…
What ACOG found in all the studies where homebirth and hospital birth neonatal mortality were similar:
Rigorous selection criteria
Experienced, well-trained (usually credentialed) attendants
Safe and timely transfer
So in a nutshell, yes, homebirth for a low-risk pregnancy with a qualified attendant and a hospital close by for transfer is as safe as a hospital birth for a low-risk pregnancy. ACOG still believes that a hospital birth or birthing center with CNM are the safest options, however, they acknowledge that homebirth can have comparable rates of infant mortality.
That being said…
I think there is a potential for some “high-risk” pregnancies to be safely birthed at home, depending on the particulars of the pregnancy and skill of the attendant. The Farm in Tennessee has delivered breeches, VBAC’s and twins with an extremely high success rate. And while there are accounts of poor midwifery care for breeches, twins and VBAC’s we can dig up examples of successful homebirths for these conditions. As for hospital care, most twins and breeches are simply delivered by c-section and few VBAC’s are attempted and fewer achieved. This gives the illusion of safety since many twins, some breeches and most VBAC’s could probably be delivered safely vaginally with the right care. ACOG notes that research from the UK showed comparable levels of neonatal mortality VBAC’s at home and in hospital— but that in the US the rates of neonatal mortality were higher for HBAC’s. This indicates that safe HBAC is possible, but there are problems with how HBAC’s are often managed in the US.
But the two criteria of low-risk pregnancy and competent attendant apply to hospital births as well. Some pregnancies just can’t end in a natural birth like genuine CPD and some are just more likely to have a poorer outcome even with the best technology, like a very early pre-term birth. Skill of the attendant is also crucial even with a OB-GYN in a hospital. For example this doctor– an honors graduate from CalTech and elected vice-chair of obstetrics to Huntington Memorial Hospital- failed to treat a mother for retained placenta causing a severe hormonal deficiency, injured two babies during labor resulting in brain damage to both and failed to treat a mother or call in a perinatology specialist when a mother was leaking amniotic fluid at 30 weeks and the baby’s heartbeat was abnormal, resulting in the infant’s death. The hospital stuck by him during these and many more instances only taking action when the LA Times published an expose. Or this hospital where the physicians and nurses sent a mother home who had a blood clotting disorder and whom they knew through lab tests was experiencing a clotting failure, resulting in the baby’s death.
Bad decisions and poor care from anyone can kill a baby and credentials- or lack thereof- are no guarantee of good or bad care. The aforementioned doctor at Huntington Memorial permanently injured a mother who was low-risk. After suddenly shouting that he needed to do an emergency c-section, he instead decided to make several deep cuts into the mother’s vagina. The baby was born healthy and the mother’s bowels were permanently damaged. Specialists who examined her were shocked that a woman under the care of a licensed physician in America could have such severe injury. Let’s ask ourselves a question: had she delivered in ambulance or by the side of the road, might there have been a better outcome? Remember, the doctor gave no reason for why a c-section needed to be done, then decided that it wasn’t necessary and medical examinations determined the injuries were shocking and unnecessary.
An obstetrician who fails to give appropriate care is just as dangerous to a baby or mother as a midwife or mother who fails to give appropriate care. Doctors who want the respect and trust of mothers can’t expect that their credentials are enough. They must be able to provide appropriate and competent care. And if a doctor is allowed to provide care that endangers the lives of mothers and babies and still be elected to a prominent position in a hospital, then how well can women trust the credential of OB-GYN over midwife? The same arguments that midwives are incompetent and unregulated can also be leveled at OB-GYN’s and pretending that one or the other credential is more or less safe distracts us from the real issue: competent birth attendants save lives. Incompetent ones endanger them. It’s not the place of birth or the credentials of the attendant that make a birth safe. It’s the competency of the attendant and supporting caregivers.