Background: Women's access to vaginal birth after cesarean (VBAC) in the United States has declined steadily since the mid-1990s, with a current rate of 8.2%. In the State of Florida, less than 1% of women with a previous cesarean deliver vaginally. This downturn is thought to be largely related to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) VBAC guidelines, which mandate that a physician and anesthesiologist be "immediately available" during a trial of labor. The aim of this exploratory qualitative study was to explore the barriers associated with the ACOG VBAC guidelines, as well as the strategies that obstetricians and midwives use to minimize their legal risks when offering a trial of labor after cesarean.
Methods: Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 11 obstetricians, 12 midwives, and a hospital administrator (n = 24). Interviews were recorded and transcribed verbatim, and thematic analysis informed the findings.
Results: Fear of liability was a central reason for obstetricians and midwives to avoid attending VBACs. Providers who continued to offer a trial of labor attempted to minimize their legal risks by being highly selective in choosing potential candidates. Definitions of "immediately available" varied widely among hospitals, and providers in solo or small practices often favored the convenience of a repeat cesarean delivery rather than having to remain in-house during a trial of labor. Midwives were often marginalized due to restrictive hospital policies and by their consulting physicians, even though women with previous cesareans were actively seeking their care.
Conclusions: The current ACOG VBAC guidelines limit US obstetricians' and midwives' ability to provide care for women with a previous cesarean, particularly in community and rural hospitals. Although ACOG has proposed that women be allowed to accept "higher levels of risk" in order to be able to attempt a trial of labor in some settings, access to VBAC is unlikely to increase in Florida as long as systemic barriers and liability risks remain high.