WARNING: The information in this article is medically accurate, as far as I have been able to research, but could be unsettling for some people.
From the beginning of the human race, childbirth has been fraught with danger. Infections, diseases, deformities in the woman’s anatomy, malformed or badly positioned fetuses, and many other causes have made successful delivery of a healthy child by a healthy mother a gamble at best. Thankfully, with all the advances in 21st century medicine, the mortality rate for infants 28 days old or less is calculated at only 4 out of every 1,000 births. (McDorman, M., Hoyert, D., & Matthews, T. J., 2013). The development of safe Cesarean section techniques, the emphasis on prenatal care, the availability of antibiotics and other medication to combat infection, the early diagnosis and sometimes treatment of problems even before birth — these and many other tools of modern medicine have helped to lessen the dangers of childbirth for both the mother and the baby.
But now transport yourself to the late 19th century, when most of these tools hadn’t even been conceived of yet. When during a difficult delivery, if a choice had to be made between saving the life of the mother or the child, it was the mother who won out. The life of the child was sacrificed through craniotomy or embryotomy.
Cesarean section as an option was slow to be adopted, especially in the United States, because of the high mortality rate. In many early surgeries, there was no attempt to control the flow of blood and other bodily fluids, or to sterilize the environment. Early experiments with Cesarean section involved similar problems. The surgery was only resorted to as a last resort, often after the woman had already endured a long and exhausting labor. And after the child was removed, the uterus was left to close itself. This left the possibility of the mother dying of shock, hemorrhage, or peritonitis. Thankfully, after surgeons finally realized that the womb had to be cleaned and the uterus sutured, more mothers — and their infants — survived Cesarean section (Sager, J., 1890).
In a report from the American System of Obstetrics in the late 1800s, out of 149 Cesarean sections performed in 11 countries worldwide, 108 women and 136 children survived. The figures for the U.S. alone were not as encouraging: Only 9 women and 19 children survived out of 22 operations, but improvements were continually being made (Sager, J., 1890). Compare that with the fact that in 2013, 32.7% of all deliveries in the U.S. were made by Cesarean section (Martin, J., Hamilton, B., Osterman, M., Curtin, S., & Matthews, T.J., 2015). Now that’s a remarkable development in our medical history!
Martin, J., Hamilton, B., Osterman, M., Curtin, S., & Matthews, T.J. (2015, Jan. 15). Births: Final data for 2013. National Vital Statistics Reports, 64(1). Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr64/nvsr64_01.pdf
McDorman, M., Hoyert, D., & Matthews, T.J. (2013, April). Recent declines in infant mortality in the United States, 2005-2011. NCHS Data Brief. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db120.pdf
Sager, J. (1890, May). Craniotomy. The Medical Compend, 5(10), 124-128.