Caesarean sections — or C-sections, a surgery that involves making incisions through a woman’s abdomen and uterus to deliver her baby — have been on the rise since the mid-1990s.  Last month a New York Times story reported that 2007 saw the highest rate of Caesarean sections ever, 32 percent:

It is primarily non-medical issues that are driving the increase.  Many C-sections are performed because physicians fear lawsuits.  In a survey of obstetricians, 29 percent admitted to performing C-sections for this reason.

In other cases, mothers request that their labor be induced.  She may have a grandmother in town or a military husband about to be deployed and she wants to have the child while her family can be present.  Induced labor often fails and, so, C-sections are required.  More insidiously (and not mentioned in the story), epidurals also tend to slow down labor and require induction.  So the high rate of epidural use may also be contributing to the rise in C-sections.

And, C-sections beget C-sections.  Fewer and fewer women who have had a previous C-section are being allowed to attempt a vaginal birth.  “Fewer than 10 percent of women who had Caesareans now have vaginal births, compared with 28.3 percent in 1996.”

Rates of C-section in the U.S. are higher than in most industrialized countries but lower than in some developing countries.  “…rates have soared to 40 percent in some developing countries in Latin America, and the rates in Puerto Rico and China are approaching 50 percent.”

And rates in the U.S. states vary by 16 percentage points.  “The highest rates of Caesarean births were in New Jersey (38.3 percent) and Florida (37.2 percent), and the lowest were in Utah (22.2 percent) and Alaska (22.6 percent).”

There was no discussion about why the rates among states in the U.S. would be so variable.  Thoughts?

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.