Objective: To explore whether women view decision-making surrounding vaginal or caesarean birth as their choice.
Design: Longitudinal cohort study utilising quantitative (questionnaire, routinely collected data) and qualitative (in-depth interviews) methods simultaneously.
Setting: A large hospital providing National Health Service maternity care in the UK.
Sample: Four-hundred and fifty-four primigravid women.
Methods: Women completed up to three questionnaires between their antenatal booking appointment and delivery. Amongst these women, 153 were interviewed at least once during pregnancy (between 24 and 36 weeks) and/or after 12 moths after birth. Data were also obtained from women's hospital delivery records. Descriptive statistical analysis was performed (survey and delivery data). Interview data were analysed using a seven-stage sequential form of qualitative analysis.
Results: Whilst many women supported the principle of choice, they identified how, in practice their autonomy was limited by individual circumstance and available care provision. All women felt that concerns about their baby's or their own health should take precedence over personal preference. Moreover, expressing a preference for either vaginal or caesarean birth was inherently problematic as choice until the time of delivery was neither static nor final. Women did not have autonomous choice over their actual birth method, but neither did they necessarily want it.
Conclusions: The results of this large exploratory study suggest that choice may not be the best concept through which to approach the current arrangements for birth in the UK. Moreover, they challenge the notion of choice that currently prevails in international debates about caesarean delivery for maternal request.