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Pitocin: A Cautionary Tale

The blogosphere lit up this last week with posts about “pit to distress” (see here, and here), the practice of administering the maximum dose of Pitocin (synthetic oxytocin) to a laboring women until the baby shows signs of distress. Such overuse (and misuse) of Pitocin in labor raises the risk of cesarean, traumatic vaginal delivery, and other negative outcomes. Yet induction and augmentation with Pitocin is virtually unquestioned by birthing mothers and their medical providers.

This week’s announcement of Ohio’s largest jury award for medical malpractice tragically illustrates this problem. The jury awarded a family $31 million in compensation for their son’s severe cerebral palsy brought on by a uterine rupture during a mismanaged VBAC labor. The complaint cited the continued use of Pitocin despite the hyperstimulation of the mother’s uterus as demonstrated by an inappropriate contraction pattern. Although some might point to the VBAC labor itself as the cause, in fact the misuse of Pitocin in this case is most likely to blame for the rupture and ensuing disability. Use of Pitocin in VBAC labor is known to increase the likelihood of uterine rupture.

Such heartbreaking incidents highlight the need for reform in current maternity practices. Many routine obstetric interventions are not based on the best available evidence and increase risk rather than safety for mothers and babies. In addition, care providers frequently do not proivde women with full, informed consent/refusal about all interventions, despite ethical and legal mandates to do so.

In light of this reality, women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant should educate themselves about routine obstetric interventions, such as induction/augmentation of labor with Pitocin and consider the risks/benefits for themselves and their babies. Doing so should influence decisions about type of provider, model of care, and place of birth.