Childbirth may be a natural process and, in most parts of the developed world, it’s extraordinarily safe. The United States, however, boasts the highest maternal mortality rates among its peer countries, at about 17.4 deaths per 100,000 pregnancies, as of 2018, with the rate for Black women as high as 37.1 deaths per 100,000 pregnancies – all of which suggests something is awry. By comparison, New Zealand has 1.7 deaths per 100,000 pregnancies and France, which has the highest maternal mortality rate in Europe, has 8.7 per 100,000. What’s more, these numbers don’t tell the whole story when it comes to the risks involved in childbirth.
While maternal mortality rates have received a lot of press recently, these statistics overlook the harms to infants during the birth process. Approximately 6 to 8 in every 1000 infants experience a serious birth injury, which can have lasting physical or cognitive consequences. As a result, families sometimes choose to file a lawsuit against their OB/GYN or other providers – but are birth injuries really caused by medical negligence, or are they a natural risk of giving birth?
Types And Causes Of Birth Injuries
In order to understand how birth injuries happen and when they are the result of negligence, it’s first important to examine some of the different types of childbirth injuries. Among the most common are various kinds of asphyxia and and hypoxia – deprivation of oxygen to the brain – which can cause cerebral palsy; brachial plexus injury, often caused by strain on the nerves in the head and neck during delivery; broken bones; and head injuries caused by the use of forceps or vacuum suction during delivery.
Of the many injuries classified as birth injuries, some are common and essentially harmless, including cephalohematoma, which is the collection of blood between the scalp and skull, often caused by prolonged labor, and caput succedaneum, a type of scalp swelling. Other injuries, however, including broken bones and nerve injuries, can cause lasting complications and are more likely to lead to lawsuits.
Evaluating Birth Injuries
In order to determine whether a birth injury is caused by negligence or malpractice, parents should work with an experienced birth injury lawyer. Such professionals can identify is a provider failed to follow standard procedures during delivery, missed signs of fetal distress, or otherwise failed to identify that something was not going right with the pregnancy or delivery. Sometimes these errors are obvious, such as a failure to initiate a C-section in the event of fetal distress, but other birth injury cases can be harder to parse.
One cause of birth injuries that can be particularly difficult to evaluate are those involving high birth weight babies. High birth weight babies are more likely to require delivery via C-section, but as with any major medical intervention, parents have the right to refuse or delay this intervention barring a life-threatening emergency. However, delaying a C-section can make the likelihood of injury much greater.
In contrast to injuries related to high birth weight, it’s much easier to identify provider negligence as an issue in cases when, for example, birth injury occurs due to an unidentified fetal infection. Such infections can cause a drop in blood oxygen levels, resulting in perinatal asphyxia and brain damage, as well as damage to other organ systems. Because of the medical needs children with such conditions may require, it’s common for families to sue the medical providers and in particularly egregious cases, medical providers may settle out of court.
Infants who suffer from birth injuries may get off to a tough start in life, but many go on to have full, satisfying lives. Still, certain severe birth injuries are considered “never events” in obstetrics and should be treated as the serious, life-altering events they are – and that means holding providers accountable.