ATLANTA -- The rate of Caesarean sections in the U.S. has climbed to an all-time high, despite efforts by public health authorities to bring down the number of such deliveries, the government said Tuesday.
Nearly 1.2 million C-sections were performed in 2004, accounting for 29.1 percent of all births that year, the National Center for Health Statistics reported. That is up from 27.5 percent in 2003 and 20.7 in 1996.
The increase is attributed to fears of malpractice lawsuits if a vaginal delivery goes wrong, the preferences of mothers and physicians, and the risks of attempting vaginal births after Caesareans.
The C-section rate increased for all births, even those that involved healthy, first-time pregnancies with a full-term, single child. In 2000, the government announced a national public health goal of reducing the C-section rate for such births to 15 percent by 2010, but the actual rate now is about 24 percent and rising.
The government also reported that more than a half-million infants were born preterm _ at less than 37 weeks' gestation _ in 2004, which is another record. And the proportion of infants with a low birth weight rose to 8.1 percent in 2004, from 7.9 percent the year before.
Increases in multiple-fetus pregnancies and in pre-term C-sections seem to help explain the preterm and low birth weight numbers, said Joyce Martin, an epidemiologist who co-wrote the report.
A C-section is major surgery: A doctor cuts open a women's abdomen to retrieve the baby. The risks include infection and, in rare cases, death, and recovery time is longer than with a vaginal delivery. Doctors often perform a Caesarean when the fetus lacks oxygen or is in some other kind of life-threatening distress.
For decades, C-sections were done in only a small fraction of births. In 1970, the national rate was 5 percent. Then it rose, surpassing 20 percent by the mid-1980s.
Experts say many factors drove the rate: Mothers increasingly preferred the convenience of C-sections, which could be scheduled. Technological innovations let doctors better see problems before birth.
The trend temporarily reversed in the early 1990s, partly because HMOs pressured doctors to curtail unnecessary procedures. But by the late 1990s, health insurers had cut back their C-section control efforts.
Also, doctors became worried by studies that showed that women who deliver vaginally after having a C-section earlier suffer a ruptured uterus _ a potentially lethal complication for both mother and child _ in about 1 percent of such cases.
Some hospitals have banned vaginal deliveries after C-section, or VBAC, said Tonya Jamois, president of the International Cesarean Awareness Network, an advocacy organization.