Journal of Clinical Ethics 24 (3):207-214 (2013)

Home births continue to constitute only a small percentage of all deliveries in the United States, in part because of concerns about their safety. While the literature is decidedly mixed in regard to the degree of risk, there are several studies that report that home birth may at times entail a small absolute increase in perinatal risks in circumstances that cannot always be anticipated prior to the onset of labor. While the definition of “small” will vary between individuals, and publications vary in the level of risk they ascribe to birth at home, studies with the least methodological flaws and with adequate power often cite an excess death rate in the range of one per thousand. Home birth is, in that regard, but one example of patients’ choices and plans that sometimes carry increased risk or include alternatives that individual physicians feel uncomfortable supporting or recommending. Our intention in this opinion piece is not to advocate for or against home birth. Rather, we recognize that home birth is but one example of a patient choice that might differ from what a provider feels is in a woman’s best interests. In this article we will discuss ethical considerations in such circumstances using home birth as an example. We consider in this article how the ethical principles of respect for autonomy and non-maleficence can be balanced using, among other examples, the choice by some for a home birth. We discuss how absolute rather than relative risk should guide individuals’ evaluation of patient choices. We also consider how in some circumstances, the value and safety added by a physician’s participation may outweigh a potentially small increment in absolute risk that might result from a patient’s decision to deliver at home because of a perceived physician endorsement. We recognize, however, that doctors and midwives participating in choices they have not recommended, or may even believe will lead to or increase risk for adverse outcomes, presents dilemmas and raises important questions. When does respect for patient choice and autonomy become support for poor decision making? When is participation not respectful but enabling? Finally we discuss the role and responsibility of organized medicine in making all births as safe as possible
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