Rates of full-term stillbirths in the UK are currently at their lowest levels on record, accounting for 1 in 225 births. While this figure has seen an almost constant decline since the 1980s, it is still higher than several comparable countries. This disparity suggests that there is still more to be done to reduce the rates in the UK even further.
Giving birth to a stillborn baby can be a traumatic experience. In many cases doctors are sadly unable to tell parents what caused their baby’s death. As a consequence, there have been many requests from bereaved parents and charities for a more transparent and independent process for determining the cause of full-term stillbirths. Knowing the cause of death could help to provide grieving parents with a sense of closure. It could also enable doctors to learn more from stillbirths and how they may be prevented.
Currently, coroners can only conduct inquests into the deaths of babies who showed signs of life following birth. When a pregnancy that appeared to be healthy ends in still birth, the investigation lies with the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch. This could soon change, as the government are undergoing a consultation on whether to grant coroners the power to investigate full-term stillbirths. If agreed upon, the changes would apply to all stillbirths that occur from 37 weeks of pregnancy in England and Wales.
What would coronial investigations do?
If passed, this consultation would provide coroners with the power to order a medical examination of the placenta and foetal tissues in order to attempt to determine the cause of death. These powers could bring greater independence to investigations of stillbirths. They could also increase the transparency of the process, enabling grieving parents to be involved at all stages of the investigations. As a result, parents would have a greater chance of receiving answers on what went wrong and why. These answers could enable hospital staff to ensure that any mistakes identified are mitigated to prevent future avoidable stillbirths.
Learning as much as possible from stillbirths is key to increasing our chances of preventing them.
This 12 week consultation will run until 18th June. Details of the response are scheduled to be published in September.
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