Today is International Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day. Having worked with many women who have tragically experienced miscarriage, still birth or neonatal death in our work as health lawyers, my colleagues and I believe we have an understanding of the profound impact that pregnancy and infant loss has on a woman and her family. It is difficult to imagine the range of emotions that a mother, father – and significant others – experience as a result of such tragedy.
While there is a lot of publicly available material for people to access in relation to stillbirth, the topic is still ‘taboo’. This can be for several reasons – the most common being friends and family not knowing how to respond for fear of upsetting those directly affected.
In my experience as a midwife and before I trained as a lawyer, I became aware that one of the most important aspects after a stillbirth is the time parents spend with their baby following the birth.
While there is much that can be – and is – written about stillbirth, it remains hard for those of us who have never actually experienced a stillbirth to articulate with certainty how those touched by it feel. I can say though, the emotions of loss and grief I felt during the labour, birthing and the post-natal period of stillbirth, whilst different to those directly involved as parents, have never been lost on me.
Recognising the impact of stillbirth on those who assist women during labour, birthing and the post-natal stage is sometimes overlooked. Women and their partners can develop close relationships with health professionals involved with their care during pregnancy. While the impact is different, the sense of loss and grief is not lost on those associated with the care and journey of a pregnancy that results in a stillbirth.
On a personal note, my grandmother gave birth to a beautiful daughter in 1943 who was, unfortunately, stillborn. In 2015, I went with my then 98-year-old grandmother to visit the Circle of Love at Rookwood Cemetery, Lidcombe. This is a special space created in the memory of children (including my grandmother’s daughter) interred in unmarked graves within the cemetery during the late 19th century. It became clear to me on that day how very important it is for women to be able to celebrate and remember the life of a baby born still born.
It is only in the last few years that intensive research has begun in earnest into stillbirth. Late last year, a report was published by a Senate Select Committee which held an inquiry into the future direction of stillbirth research in this country. Evidence was taken from individuals in major centres around the country and many submissions received. The recommendations were accepted in full by the Federal government which include the investment of $52.4m for perinatal services and support and the funding of a specialist unit – the Centre of Research Excellence in Stillbirth within the University of Queensland. One of the key focuses of this specialist Centre is to “reduce the number of stillbirths that occur after 28 weeks’ gestation, and to improve the quality of care received by families whose baby is stillborn”.
The causes of stillbirth have also been recently investigated by the World Health Organisation “(WHO”). Although it is believed that half of stillbirths happen in labour and that the major causes include childbirth complications, pregnancy continuing post – dates, maternal infections during pregnancy, foetal growth restriction and congenital abnormalities, the WHO has concluded that “the majority of stillbirths are preventable.”
Also in 2016, the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet, launched a series of papers entitled “Ending Preventable Stillbirths.” The focus of this series was to build on strategies to prevent stillbirths and provide better care to women and families following stillbirth. It aims to end preventable deaths by the year 2030 using maternal, neonatal and child survival targets framed within the context of health, survival and overall quality of care for women and their babies.”
Most recently, research has been published here in Australia – and as recently as last week – demonstrating that stillbirth occurs more frequently among women with non-white backgrounds born overseas than for Australian born women.
Our firm will be monitoring the work being done by the Queensland Centre of Research Excellence in Stillbirth and the implementation of targets identified by the Select Committee on Stillbirth Research and Education.
Our experienced health law team are currently assisting several women whose pregnancy resulted in stillbirth. Some stillbirths are inexplicable while others have been shown to have been preventable for a variety of clinical reasons. Whether action is taken or not, it is our experience that all women benefit from coming to an understanding of the likely reason the stillbirth has occurred.
We recognise the impact such a life changing experience can have on families who experience stillbirth.
There are a number of supportive organisations in the community who/which can provide support and care for families who have experienced the loss of a baby. Here are some links to a few Australian organisations: Bears of Hope, Stillbirth Foundation, Sands and Pregnancy Loss Australia
Linda Crawford is a Senior Solicitor who specialises in health and medical law at Catherine Henry Lawyers. Before she started work as a solicitor 11 years ago, she was a midwife and registered nurse working in hospitals in both NSW and Queensland.
If you would like to speak with someone from our health law team contact us or call (02) 4929 3995