The use of synthetic oxytocin (Pitocin) during labor is hardly uncommon, but it's what you might call a controversial topic. Some believe its risks outweigh its benefits, some believe it's merely used as a convenience for the mother, some believe it's both a legitimate birthing choice and, in many cases, a medical necessity. Whatever your personal opinion about Pitocin may be, an Iowa hospital must be second-guessing their decision to use it during one woman's birth five years ago -- since they just paid out $3.75 million to settle a lawsuit for the problems the drug allegedly caused.
Jonathon and Martha Fountain of Iowa City filed the lawsuit against University of Iowa hospital, claiming that the use of Pitocin during their son's birth caused permanent brain injuries. The hospital denied all claims of negligence … but the fact that they agreed to pay a multimillion dollar settlement certainly makes you wonder.
Five years ago, Martha Fountain went to the University of Iowa near the end of her normal full-term pregnancy. According to her lawsuit, UIHC staff gave her Pitocin without determining whether her naturally occurring contractions were too frequent or too strong, and she went on to have a 28-hour labor -- prolonged, she says, "due to excessive contractions."
The lawsuit claims that she continued to receive Pitocin despite later recordings that showed "significant trauma" to the baby's head, which was having difficulty descending into the birth canal. The baby boy was eventually delivered through a C-section, and was found to have severe brain injuries.
Today the boy is 5 years old, and suffers from cerebral palsy, mental retardation, and other serious health conditions.
The university's lawyers said the child's brain injuries were likely caused by other factors, and that the notion that excessive contractions can cause brain injuries to babies "is not supported by scientific evidence." The family's lawyer, however, claims there are a growing number of cases in which Pitocin prolonged delivery and caused "a lack of blood flow to the baby's brain."
While the hospital denied any wrongdoing, they must have felt like it was in their best interest to avoid going to trial. Settling is not an admission of guilt, of course, but it leaves me with an uneasy feeling about this story. What really happened? Could a prolonged labor have really caused this child's brain injuries? Is there any way to know if the Pitocin actually had a negative effect on the situation? How does this information fit with the prevailing opinion that a C-section should be avoided at all costs, even if labor is dragging on?
For every childbirth horror story, there are a ton of perfectly normal, healthy births that don't end up in the news because, well, they're not particularly newsworthy. And there's no doubt that Pitocin can be a lifesaving intervention for both mother and baby.
Still, this is a hell of a medical malpractice settlement, and one that makes you wonder how hospital childbirth policies regarding Pitocin might change in the future. Whether for good or for bad, it's anyone's guess.
What do you think about this story? Do you think it's possible the baby really was damaged from 'excessive' Pitocin-triggered contractions?
Image via aaron_anderer/Flickr