Part of that unnecessary intervention is driven by lack of experience. Part is an economically-driven disrespect for time. (Give childbirth some motherlovin' time.) Another part, related very much to experience, is how difficult it is to decide when intervention is and isn't necessary, especially when things are heating up. But another part of the trouble actually lies in the evolutionary perspective. Unfortunately it's not all rainbows and unicorns when M.D.s embrace evolution. Instead, evolutionary thinking is biasing some medical professionals into believing that, for example, birth by surgical caesarean is an "evolutionary imperative."
Here's one recent example in The American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology of how the evolutionary perspective is (mis)guiding arguments for increased medical intervention in childbirth.
|link to paper|
OD thinking goes like this: Big heads and small birth canals are adaptive for our species' cognition and locomotion, respectively, but the two traits cause a problem at birth, which is not only difficult but results in our species' peculiar brand of useless babies. (But see and see.)
So, since we're on the OD train, it's no surprise when we read how the authors demonstrate and, thus, conclude that indeed HC (head circumference) is more strongly associated with childbirth interventions than BW (birth weight), at least when we're up in the 95th percentile of BW and HC. Okay.
They use this finding to advocate for prenatal estimation of head size to prepare for any difficulties a mother and her fetus may be facing soon. Okay.
Sounds good. Sounds really good if you support healthy moms and babies. But it also sounds really good if you already see these risks to childbirth through the lens of the "obstetrical dilemma" with that OD thinking helping you to support "the evolutionary imperative" of the c-section. Okay.
Too many "Okays" you're thinking? You're right. There's a catch.
When you dig into the paper you see that "large HC" heads are usually about an inch (~ 2.5 cm) greater in circumference than "normal HC" ones. (Nevermind that we chopped up a continuum of quantitative variation to put heads in arbitrary categories for statistical analysis.) And when you calculate the head diameter based on the head circumference, there is less than 1 cm difference between "large" and "normal" neonatal heads in diameter. That doesn't seem like a whole lot considering how women's bony pelvic dimensions can vary more than that. Still, these data suggest that the difference between a relatively low risk of having a c-section and a relatively high risk of having a c-section amounts to less than a centimeter in fetal head diameter. And maybe it does. Nobody's saying that big heads aren't a major problem sometimes! But maybe there's something else to consider that the paper absolutely didn't.
Neonatal heads get squeezed and molded into interesting shapes in the birth canal.
The data say that normal HC babies get born vaginally more often than large HC ones. But this is based on the head measures of babies who are already born! If we're pitting head circumference (HC) of babies plucked from the uterus against the HC of babies who've been through hello! then of course the vaginally delivered ones could have smaller HCs.
C-sected babies tend to have rounder heads than the ones squeezed by the birth canal. It's impossible to know but I'm fairly confident about this, at least for a subsample of a population: Birth the same baby from the same mother both ways, vaginally and surgically, and its head after c-section will have a larger HC than its squeezed conehead will after natural birth.
|Measuring newborn head circumference (HC). source|
If these thoughts about neonatal cranial molding are worthwhile, then here we have a seemingly useful and very high-profile professional study, grounded in the popular but deeply flawed obstetrical dilemma hypothesis, that is arguing for medical intervention in childbirth based solely on the difference in head size measures induced by those very medical interventions.
The circle of life!