Thirty years of the World Health Organization’s target caesarean section rate: time to move on

Stephen J Robson and Caroline M de Costa
Med J Aust 2017; 206 (4): . || doi: 10.5694/mja16.00832
Published online: 6 March 2017



  • It has been 30 years since the World Health Organization first recommended a “maximum” caesarean section (CS) rate of 15%.
  • There are demographic differences across the 194 WHO member countries; recent analyses suggest the optimal global CS rate is almost 20%.
  • Attempts to reduce CS rates in developed countries have not worked.
  • The strongest predictor of caesarean delivery for the first birth of “low risk” women appears to be maternal age; a factor that continues to increase.
  • Most women whose first baby is born by caesarean delivery will have all subsequent children by caesarean delivery.
  • Outcomes that informed the WHO recommendation primarily relate to maternal and perinatal mortality, which are easy to measure.
  • Longer term outcomes, such as pelvic organ prolapse and urinary incontinence, are closely related to mode of birth, and up to 20% of women will undergo surgery for these conditions. Pelvic floor surgery is typically undertaken for older women who are less fit for surgery.
  • Serious complications such as placenta accreta occur with repeat caesarean deliveries, but the odds only reach statistical significance at the third or subsequent caesarean delivery. However, in Australia, parity is falling, and only 20% of women will have more than two births.
  • We should aim to provide CS to women in need and to continue including women in the conversation about the benefits and disadvantages, both short and long term, of birth by caesarean delivery.


  • Stephen J Robson1
  • Caroline M de Costa2

  • 1 Centenary Hospital for Women and Children, ANU Medical School, Canberra, ACT
  • 2 Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, James Cook University School of Medicine, Cairns, QLD


Competing interests:

No relevant disclosures.


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