It has been something of a conundrum for quite some time.. actually from the beginning of civilisation that stillborn babies are not considered a person according to the law. This means that a baby who is born alive at 20 weeks, takes a breath and then dies has rights under law that a baby who lives in the womb for 20 weeks longer but is stillborn at 40 weeks doesn’t have.
The repercussions of this can be quite profound, in fact it means that a maternity care provider who gives such poor care during labour and birth that the baby dies can literally get away with murder. A recent series of ‘ preventable’ stillbirths has come to light in the state of Victoria and I note that these news reports are accompanied by calls for legislation to be changed to allow the coroner to investigate the circumstances of deaths.
The role of the coroner is not, nor ever has been, punitive. They play a very valuable role in investigating certain sudden/accidental deaths and handing down recommendations to try to prevent such deaths from occurring in the future. One example of how this works is the coronial inquest into the death of a baby in Queensland where the coroner understood that the death was potentially preventable if the midwives involved had correctly interpreted the CTG (NST) and because they didn’t that this played a role in the baby’s poor condition at birth and his later death. He handed down the recommendation that the hospital provide CTG training for all their midwives. If the baby had died during labour and been stillborn then this investigation and recommendation would not have been possible. Therefore, if it was legally possible for intrapartum stillbirths to be investigated by the coroner I have no doubt that there would be valuable lessons learned and preventative strategies put into place to help stop preventable stillbirths from happening in the future.
Whilst there is often a perinatal death review which can be a very helpful process, what such a review lacks is the oomph of a coronial inquest. I think it is well and truly time to demand that babies who die during labor and birth be awarded the right to have their deaths investigated as any other person who dies suddenly can. I join the call for those that make laws in all nations of the world to enact legislation to change this outdated law and give these babies their basic human right to justice, as a matter of urgency!