What does “at risk of needing a caesarean” actually mean?
I’d like to offer another riff about language today. I have heard and read a number of comments lately about women being “at risk of needing a caesarean”. But there’s so much to unpack in that statement! What do we mean by ‘at risk’? What does ‘need’ actually mean? And who determines the existence or degree of both of those things?
I suspect that most readers of this blog will already be well aware that the notion of risk is pretty unstable and dependent on who is doing the labelling, so we’ll skip over that for now.
What about need?
Well, if you ask the dictionary, you will find that ‘need’ means that something is essential to us rather than desirable. So when I (like so many other people, because we often use this word somewhat inappropriately, perhaps to express irony or perhaps out of habit) declare that I have a need for chocolate or wine, I’m probably not being as accurate as I could be. I need to drink fluid to survive; I don’t necessarily need that fluid to be chilled prosecco.
Pedantic, but important
How many of the women who have a caesarean really needed that caesarean in order to enable them to survive?
There’s no way of knowing for sure, but probably very few.
How many of them needed the caesarean in order for their baby to survive?
Well, that’s a few more, but still a small number in absolute terms and nowhere near the number of women who actually have a caesarean.
There are complex reasons for that, and one of the key ones is that caesarean section is often done as a preventative measure – or because there is a chance of a problem happening – rather than as a treatment in an actual emergency situation.
I’m not saying that’s always a bad thing … I’m just unpacking the issues so we can take a look at them.
Not a natural consequence
Another important point is that a caesarean section is not a natural outcome, or something that will happen on its own if we leave things alone and don’t intervene. A few years ago, I had a conversation with the brilliant Anne Frye about this very issue. Why, she said, is it that so many medical researchers write about the outcome of caesarean section as if it were the natural consequence of a proportion of pregnancies?
A caesarean section (or an induction of labour or any other medical intervention) happens because someone makes a decision that it should happen. It’s not a consequence of anything the woman does or doesn’t do.
And being “at risk of needing a caesarean” isn’t an objective state. It is dependent on who a woman has around her and on what they believe and think. There are plenty of women who are told by one person that they need (or don’t need) a caesarean who might have been told something totally different if they were with someone else. And yes, there are also some who would probably be told the same thing no matter where they were. I’m not saying there are no clear-cut situations here, just that there is a lot of grey…
It’s really easy, in this fast-paced world, to skip over the way we use words like ‘risk’ and ‘need’. But I’m concerned that, when we do that, we aren’t always giving women an accurate picture of the decisions that are theirs to make.
If you’d like to stay up-to-date with birth-related research and thinking, make sure you’re subscribed to our free newsletter list, which means you’ll get Sara’s monthly Birth Information Update.
And if you’re a midwife or other birth worker who enjoys chatting about language and sharing wisdom with like-minded others, come and join Sara and colleagues from all over the world in one of our online courses!