Brazil has a cesarean rate that is, depending on the year, the highest in the world. Their rivals include Taiwan and China, but not the United States. Here we hover around the 33% mark, but in Brazil about half of all babies are born by surgery and in some urban, private hospitals the rates are in 70-90% range.
To put this in perspective, if we took a 20% cesarean rate as “normal” (and I do not think that is normal!) as a 2010 World Health Organization report did, several million Brazilian women are having unnecessary cesareans every year. That report calculated a world-wide excess of 6.2 million cesareans annually and half of those are in China and Brazil.
Why is the cesarean rate in Brazil so high?
If you ask Americans, they tend to blame Brazilian women. Almost invariably, the first ideas we Americans have are about how the WOMEN must want more cesareans, how the women must be more used to surgeries (since they have so many more plastic surgeries than American women), how the women must be more concerned with keeping their vaginas tight and beautiful, how the women must not be willing to undergo labor.
But when I ask Brazilians in the United States, they tell me the same things that American women tell me. They say things like, “My doctor told me I didn’t have enough amniotic fluid” or “My baby was too big to be born vaginally” or “My baby was in distress.” In other words, Brazilian women understand their own cesareans as medically-necessary, even though statistically it can’t be true for most of them. (The same phenomenon occurs in the United States, I find.)
A 2014 article in the Atlantic confirms this. That article concluded that the medical system is not set up to support laboring women who are aiming for vaginal births (much less unmedicated vaginal births!). In hospitals where 70% or more of births are by cesarean, women who aim for vaginal birth are nuisances to the schedules of doctors and nurses. And it is a self-fulfilling prophecy that doctors and nurses who are skilled at cesarean birth become less and less skilled at managing natural labors.
All of this adds up to a fascinating cultural picture that I am eager to learn more about. So I am headed to Brazil at the end of May for a two-week crash course in all things birth in Brazil. I will be in Florianapolis with Ana Paula Markel, doula trainer extraordinaire, and in Belo Horizonte with my Portuguese teacher, who has promised to introduce me to young women and their families who are in the thick of this childbearing conundrum.
I’m so excited! If you are Brazilian, Brazilian-American, or an American who has given birth in Brazil, I want your stories!
Here are two articles if you’re interested in more.