An article last weekend in The Guardian newspaper again highlights the tragedy of Australia’s unacceptably high stillbirth rate.
It tells the story of a mother, Anne-Marie, whose son Xavier was one of six babies a day in Australia who are born still.
Australia’s stillbirth rate hasn’t changed for nearly two decades. More than 2,000 babies are stillborn each year. This figure is more than a third worse than the best-performing countries.
It’s pleasing then that there is action from the Federal government to cut the rate of still-births in late pregnancy by 20% through the National Stillbirth Action and Implementation Plan as well as initiatives such as the national Safer Baby Bundle.
The Safer Baby Bundle – modelled on European programs – is a suite of eLearning modules, workshops – all part of a campaign for pregnant women targeting five key areas. It provides information to both pregnant women and to clinicians.
What is stillbirth?
A stillbirth is defined as the delivery of a baby at between 20-28 weeks gestation with no signs of life. Neonatal death is different – the death of a baby within the first 28 days of life.
Causes of stillbirth and impacts on parents
It is only in the last few years that intensive research has begun into stillbirth.
Late last year, the Federal government announced an 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 Centre’s goals 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”.
Read more in this article by our Senior Health Lawyer, Linda Crawford, who was a midwife before becoming a lawyer. Linda wrote this article to mark International Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day held each year in October.
Have your say on the National Stillbirth Action and Implementation Plan
The draft national stillbirth action and implementation plan – released in February 2020 – says developing a nationally consistent stillbirth auditing system, and supporting continuity of care, as goals that will have a substantial impact on tackling Australia’s stillbirth rates.
The plan’s priority areas, action areas, goals and implementation tasks were developed based on a Senate Select Committee Report, the outcomes of a Stillbirth Roundtable held with key stakeholders in February 2019, and a document prepared by the Stillbirth CRE and Stillbirth Foundation Australia.
The plan is open for public consultation. You can make comments before July 2020 here.
The law can help provide answers and cut still-birth rates
The law can play a vital role in helping parents get vital answers when they lose a child to still-birth. From the many cases that we handle involving still-birth, the majority of parents feel dissatisfied with the information and support provided by the health system. Lawyers can help gain the documents and answers on behalf of those families.
The law can also be a useful tool to prevent these tragic events from occurring. In our experience the trauma or death is often avoidable and a result of negligence. Holding those responsible accountable for any negligence ensures lessons are learned and changes to procedures are made. Learning what really happened and whether the death was avoidable – or not – helps give families a reason for the trauma and loss they have experienced and assists with the process of “moving on”.
There are a number of hurdles though for families seeking answers, justice or redress for the loss of their child. The Coroner cannot investigate stillbirths because a baby must take an independent breath before a referral can be made to the Coroner.
Establishing that the death of the baby was due to negligent medical care can be difficult. Parents often refuse consent to an autopsy and later regret it. Sometimes an autopsy is the best chance for obtaining critical information about what happened to the baby.
To succeed in a negligence claim, one or both of the parents must be able to show not only that the stillbirth was avoidable but also that at least one of the parents has developed a recognizable psychiatric or psychological injury as a result of the death of their child. Whilst in most cases we have dealt with it has not been difficult to meet this legal threshold, it is important to know that there is no compensation for the loss of the child itself.
Our client’s stories
Despite these hurdles, our expert and caring health law team has settled many cases for families who have lost a child to still birth.
We successfully resolved a claim for negligence leading to stillbirth caused by a hospital’s failure to diagnose and treat her pre-eclampsia and HELLP (Haemolysis, Elevated Liver Enzymes and Low Platelet) which tragically resulted in the stillbirth of her daughter. Read the story here.
We successfully settled another client’s claim for negligence for mental harm caused by mismanagement of her pregnancy which resulted in the tragic stillbirth of her daughter. Read the story here.
Let us fight for you or your loved one
If you or a loved one has experienced injuries as a result of a pregnancy complication, stillbirth, neonatal death or birth trauma, please get in touch with one of our caring, expert, female medical lawyers about the options available to you.