Doesn't the US have a high infant mortality rate?

Home birth advocates often say that hospital birth is clearly unsafe, as the "United States has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world."

The problem is that infant mortality is not how you measure obstetric safety.

Infant mortality includes all deaths from birth to one year of age. This makes it a measure of pediatric care, not the safety of obstetric care.

According to the WHO, the best measure of obstetric care (care during pregnancy, labor, and delivery) is perinatal mortality, which it defines as deaths from the 22nd week of pregnancy to the 7th day of life. And the United States has one of the best perinatal mortality rates in the world, lower than Denmark, the UK, and the Netherlands.

So does the United States really have one of the worst obstetric systems in the world? No. It has one of the best.

The Johnson and Daviss Study

As I discussed in the last post, we can only use studies that use home birth data from the United States to determine whether home birth in the United States is safe.

And when you look at that data, you find that every study on planned, midwife-attended home birth in the United States shows that significantly more babies die at home birth than at hospital birth:

Other than those listed, there is one more major study on home birth in the United States. It is called "Outcomes of planned home births with certified professional midwives: large prospective study in North America," it was published in 2005 by the authors Johnson and Daviss, and it claims to have found that planned home birth had "lower rates of medical intervention but similar intrapartum and neonatal mortality to that of low risk hospital births in the United States."

The problem is, the data didn't actually show that.

When analyzing the number of interventions for their study, Johnson and Daviss compared numbers from home birth in the year 2000 to hospital births in the year 2000. But then when looking at mortality (death) rates, they compared the home birth numbers from 2000 to hospital numbers stretching all the way back to 1969, when death rates in the hospital were much higher.  After doing this, they said that found a neonatal death rate of 2.7 per 1000 for home births and 2.6 per 1000 for hospital births.

When it was pointed out to them that the data actually showed a hospital death rate of 0.9 per 1000 in the year 2000, meaning that their study really showed home birth had 3 times the death rate as hospital birth, the authors admitted that the hospital death rate in 2000 was indeed 0.9 per 1000. They claimed that the data wasn't available to make the correct comparison at the time of their study, even though it was available since 2002 and their study was published in 2005.

After admitting the correct hospital neonatal mortality rate in 2000 was 0.9 per 1000, they then tried to claim that home birth in 2000 *actually* had that same death rate. They did this by excluding groups of deaths from the home birth data that they did not exclude from the hospital data. If those same groups were excluded from the hospital data, the hospital death rate would drop down to 0.34 per 1000 - still showing the same conclusion: three times as many babies died at home birth than at the hospital.

Why would Johnson and Daviss go to all these lengths to claim that the data showed home birth is safe, even when it didn't? Well, the reader might be surprised to know (since they did not disclose it in their paper) that Johnson used to work for the Midwives Alliance of North America, and Daviss is a homebirth midwife.

Why international studies do not show American home birth is safe

Home birth in the United States is very different from home birth in other developed countries.

Different Midwives

In countries like Canada, the UK, and the Netherlands, the midwives have much higher educational standards than US homebirth midwives. They must have a university degree, they meet the standards set forth by the International Confederation of Midwives, they are integrated into the health care system, and they have hospital privileges.

Most home births in the United States are attended by Certified Professional Midwives (CPMs) or Licensed Midwives (LMs). Neither CPMs nor LMs would be able to practice in any other developed country; their educational standards are just too low. They do not have to have a university degree (if a midwife became a CPM before 2012, she doesn't even need to have a high school degree), their credential does not meet the standards set forth by the International Confederation of Midwives, they are not integrated into the health care system, and they do not have hospital privileges.

Certified Nurse Midwives (CNMs), which do attend some home births in the United States, are much more similar to midwives found in other developed countries. Like the midwives found in the UK, Canada, and the Netherlands, they must have a university degree, they meet the standards set forth by the International Confederation of Midwives, they are integrated into the health care system, and they are (usually) able to obtain hospital privileges.

This helpful chart from "American Home Birth" illustrates the differences between the types of midwives:

Different Systems 

In addition to the differences between American midwives and the midwives found in Canada, the UK, and the Netherlands, the home birth systems are completely different.

In Canada, the UK, the Netherlands, and other developed countries home birth is integrated into the main medical system. Midwives are highly regulated and have accountability for their actions and outcomes.

If a woman wants to have home birth, she is assessed by a care provider to make sure that she is "low risk." "Low risk" means she does not have risk factors such as a previous cesarean, twin (or other multiple) pregnancy, breech baby, previous postpartum hemorrhage, and much, much more. These things are not just "variations of normal" - they are complications that increase the risk to woman and baby during pregnancy and labor. The risking out criteria is quite extensive, to make sure that only the lowest-risk women are attempting home birth.

If a woman develops risk factors any time during her pregnancy or labor, her care is transferred to an OB and she delivers in the hospital. The transfer rate is quite high - about 40% in the Netherlands. A high transfer rate is the sign of a good home birth system - it means the midwives are recognizing risk factors and taking them seriously. Transferring is to keep the woman and her baby safe, as they are no longer safe attempting a home birth with their risk factors.

In the US, home birth is not integrated into the main medical system. There are almost two systems - the hospital system, and the home birth system. Home birth midwifery laws are determined on a state level, and there is an incredible amount of variation between the states. In general, accountability of out-of-hospital midwives is very low.

In the United States there are no national risking out criteria for women attempting home birth, and the states that do have legally required risking out factors have very few of them. Here is a chart that compares the Dutch risking out criteria to Oregon's risking out criteria: Dutch Homebirth Standards vs. Oregon Homebirth Standards. And most states have even less risking out criteria than Oregon.

In most states where midwives can legally attend out of hospital births, they are free to take on women of any risk, and pride themselves on their low transfer rates - even though a low transfer rate is a sign that a midwife is either missing risk factors or ignoring them.

For all of these reasons - poor education, training, regulation, and accountability of US midwives, and the large differences in the US homebirth system compared to the homebirth systems in other developed countries - one cannot use studies from other countries to prove that home birth in the United States is safe. One must use home birth data from, and only from, the US to determine safety of home birth in the United States. 

Is Home Birth in the United States Safe?

One day, I decided to type the question "Is home birth safe?" into Google. I tried two variations - "Is home birth safe?" and "Is homebirth safe?"

In an excellent example of why we shouldn't trust everything we read on the internet, for both searches the "Google Answer Box" at the top of the page quoted an article by the Midwives Alliance of North America, which said: "In today's peer-reviewed Journal of Midwifery & Women's Health, a landmark study confirms that among low-risk women, planned home births result in low rates of interventions without an increase in adverse outcomes for mothers and babies."

The problem? This is a lie. Every study done on planned, midwife-attended home birth in the United States - including the study quoted in the answer box - has found significantly increased rates of babies dying at home birth. 

The study quoted in the Google Answer Box, titled "Outcomes of Care for 16,924 Planned Home Births in the United States: The Midwives Alliance of North America Statistics Project, 2004 to 2009" and done by the Midwives Alliance of North America, found that the rate of newborn death at homebirth was 5.5 times higher than the newborn death rate at hospitals. 

And the worst part? The MANA study relied on voluntary, self-reported numbers from home birth midwives. With obvious personal interests in making the numbers look better, is is likely that many negative outcomes were not reported by midwives. In all likelihood, home birth has even worse outcomes than found by their study.

Here's a break down of the numbers from the MANA study: 

The CDC Wonder Database (an excellent, extremely accurate source of information) shows that for the years of the study (2004-2009), the neonatal death rate for babies born in the hospital to a comparable sample group was 0.38/1000. The "MANA Home Birth Data 2004-2009" for that same time period found that "The overall death rate from labor through six weeks was 2.06 per 1000 when higher risk women (i.e., those with breech babies or twins, those attempting VBAC, or those with preeclampsia or gestational diabetes) are included in the sample, and 1.61 per 1000 when only low risk women are included."

That overall death rate - 2.06 deaths per 1,000 - is 5.5 times higher than the comparable hospital death rate, 0.38 deaths per 1,000. The death rate found for only low-risk home births - 1.61/1000 - was still 4.2 times higher than the hospital death rate. 

The study done by MANA, which they claim shows home birth is safe, shows that 4 to 5.5 times more babies die at home birth than at the hospital. 

Home birth in the United States is not safe.