The neonatal and stillbirth charity Sands claims 17 babies a day die in the UK just before, during or soon after birth. However some parents who have lost babies have been denied their basic right to an inquest. Even those given inquests have sometimes had to wait years.

A Channel 4 documentary revealed last month that Chanell Miller had to wait two years to find out why she lost her daughter, and only with the help of a solicitor. Her daughter was a twin and there is often a perception that twins are difficult births anyway, and that if the worst does happen, you should just accept it and move on. This was certainly not one of those times, and a post mortem found that a tube had been incorrectly inserted into her heart cavity.

Some parents are yet to be granted an inquest at all, and C4 found this to be the case with Archna and Shilane Patel. Despite medical notes pointing towards multiple potential errors, they were refused an inquest.

It is no secret that things sometimes go wrong in hospitals, but why have some parents been so badly let down by the system? Babies that have taken even one breath are not stillborn, and therefore if they have died an unnatural or unexplained death, there should be an inquest. The law is not specific for baby deaths, which may be one of the reasons for confusion, especially regarding parents and their rights.

However this cannot be the only reason for a persistently blasé attitude towards baby deaths. C4 found evidence that some hospitals have wrongly been labelling dead babies as stillborn in order to avoid paperwork and a possible inquest.

Perhaps this is just part of a wider culture of ignoring the severity of baby deaths. The idea that if your baby dies, you can just have another, a culture of not allowing parents to grieve.

This can be seen in the recent scandal involving some hospitals incinerating the bodies of aborted and miscarried babies as clinical waste. A still more recent story found that certain crematoria in the UK were not returning the ashes of stillborn babies.

So where does this nonchalance surrounding baby deaths stem from? Pro-life activists would probably blame the availability of abortions. Some would view it as double standards to kick up such a fuss when you’re prepared to abort them.

However the limit on abortions is 24 weeks, and in 2011 only 1 percent of women had them at 20 weeks and over. While 78 percent had them at under 10 weeks. In contrast these babies being so severely let down have reached full term, and are fully formed beings.

Arguably this trend is just a combination of factors, and coroners are extremely busy and underfunded. They are funded by local governments, and during a time of cuts, like all services, they are likely to suffer. It is worth noting the inquest this month into a teenager’s death at the hands of a polar bear has been 3 years in the making.

However the responsibility to hold an inquest does not solely lie with the coroners, and some hospitals must also shoulder the blame. They can be reluctant for inquests to be held, not wanting to be exposed.

Are changes in NHS causing understaffing and more mistakes? In an article this year, The Guardian quoted Britain’s leading obstetrician as saying that:

“It is legitimate to ask whether understaffing of maternity care and labour wards is contributing to Britain’s stubbornly high rates of baby deaths and brain damage.”

How then must we proceed? Exposing NHS malpractice is key. Both in obtaining justice and going forward. However if problems are to an extent stemming from a lack of funding, improvement looks like a long climb.

It is essential not to merely accept things the way they are, that birth must be complicated and precarious. Sands questions the assumption that stillbirths are necessarily a natural part of life, and that no one can be at fault.

“One in every 200 births ends in stillbirth, and one in every 300 babies dies within the first 4 weeks of life. It is a common misconception that these deaths are unavoidable tragedies where something is irreversibly wrong with the baby. In fact over 90 percent of babies who are stillborn have no congenital abnormality”.

Baby deaths don’t have to be viewed as an inescapable, inevitable tragedy, a cruel turn of fate. We are living in twenty-first century England, not ancient Greece.

A clearer law and a change in attitude can’t get these parents their babies back but it can, hopefully, in time, reverse the shocking trend of babies dying before they’ve had a chance to live.

 

Sources:

http://www.uk-sands.org

http://blogs.channel4.com/victoria-macdonald-on-health-and-social-care/babies-nhs-hospitals-inquests-coroners2201/2201
https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/283937/coroner-investigations-a-short-guide.pdf
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/10717566/Aborted-babies-incinerated-to-heat-UK-hospitals.html
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-27887386
http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/apr/27/infant-mortality-rate
https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/213386/Commentary1.pdf