Rates of caesarean section are of concern in both developed and developing countries. We set out to estimate the proportion of births by caesarean section (CS) at national, regional and global levels, describe regional and subregional patterns and correlate rates with other reproductive health indicators. We analysed nationally representative data available from surveys or vital registration systems on the proportion of births by CS. We used local non-parametric regression techniques to correlate CS with maternal mortality ratio, infant and neonatal mortality rates, and the proportion of births attended by skilled health personnel. Although very unevenly distributed, 15% of births worldwide occur by CS. Latin America and the Caribbean show the highest rate (29.2%), and Africa shows the lowest (3.5%). In developed countries, the proportion of caesarean births is 21.1% whereas in least developed countries only 2% of deliveries are by CS. The analysis suggests a strong inverse association between CS rates and maternal, infant and neonatal mortality in countries with high mortality levels. There is some suggestion of a direct positive association at lower levels of mortality. CS levels may respond primarily to economic determinants.