Are Brazilian women really choosing to deliver by cesarean?
Social Science and Medicine 51(5): 725-740
Publication date: 2000
Brazil has among the highest cesarean section rates in the world, with 36% of women in the country delivering surgically. Women, especially those who deliver in private hospitals with cesarean rates in the 80-90% range, are often portrayed as actively choosing to deliver surgically. Doctors typically promote this view, also common in the popular understanding of the phenomenon, that it is women's demand for a cesarean that is behind the high rates. Academic analyses tend to present a more balanced view with doctors' motives for wanting to perform cesareans included alongside descriptions of women's motives for the procedures. What is typically missing from such analyses is a discussion of the power differences between women and doctors. Doctors clearly have more decision-making power in the hospital birthing situation, and their medical expertise and authority is often marshaled to convince a woman to "choose" a cesarean. Using data collected from a postpartum survey, participant observation in hospital obstetrics wards, and in-depth interviews, I offer evidence which refutes many of the hypotheses associated with why women might prefer to deliver by cesarean. I also show that the majority of women surveyed in two cities in Brazil, particularly first-time mothers, do not seek to deliver by cesarean. Through an analysis of conversations between doctors and women during labor and delivery, and through women's narratives of their delivery experiences, I also show some of the mechanisms that doctors use in order to induce so-called demand for surgical delivery and argue that they are very active participants in the ongoing construction of the culture of cesarean section in Brazil.