‘Parents should have the choice’: Manchester expert slams e-petition for all stillbirths to be investigated

By Ben Ireland

An e-petition to have coroners investigate stillbirths closes tomorrow, but experts from the University of Manchester think the parents’ choice should come first.

Over 4,000 stillbirths occur each year in Britain, which equates to 11 per day – one of the highest rates in the developed world.

The petition was launched in an attempt to investigate all still births and, in turn, improve preventative measures.

Under current legislation, a still born child would not be issued a birth certificate, so a coroner would not automatically investigate its death because it would never have legally been considered alive.

The e-petition says that coroners should be looking into the reasons behind still births in a bid to bring the worryingly high number down, and has 569 signatures so far.

However Dr Alexander Heazell, Clinical Lecturer in Obstetrics from Manchester University, thinks the decision should ultimately rest with the parents.

“I would not like to see parents of a still birth forced into having a post mortem,” he said.

“The danger of taking that approach is that it may force some parents into investigations they simply don’t want to have.

“Certain people just don’t want their child to be touched.”

Dr Haezell did, however, admit that it is difficult to help develop more preventative measures when post mortems aren’t taking place.

“You can’t prevent something if you don’t understand it in the first place,” he conceded.

In the case of stillbirth, he added: “It would cause more distress to parents who are already in a very difficult situation.”

At the moment, stillbirths are only given post mortems if there are doubts whether the baby was alive or not when born.

From his experience, Dr Heazell believes it would be more effective to have a compassionate conversation with parents and let them decide for themselves whether to have an investigation or not.

“There is very strong evidence to suggest that still birth is related to mental health issues,” he said.

“The last thing you would want to do is put the parents in that position.”

The closest comparison researchers have is post mortem results for babies who suffered cot death, which is obligatory.

Dr Heazell thinks the process affects some parents more than others, but can be particularly detrimental in certain cases, so there should be a case-by-case approach.

If a mother has suffered a stillbirth, she is more likely to suffer the same misfortune in the future, so Dr Heazell would like to see more parents allow the post mortem.

“People get the wrong idea about post mortems – the public perception comes from TV shows like CSI, but they’re nothing like that in reality,” he said. “They’re actually a very caring and sympathetic process.

“We even allow [for babies who’ve suffered cot death] their teddy bears to go along with them during the autopsy.”

The major issue, he feels, is the lack of support parents are given in such a difficult time in their lives.

A new specialist clinic is soon to be launched in Manchester, which will support parents who have had a stillbirth before, which Dr Heazell thinks will play an important role in raising awareness and encouraging post mortems.

Manchester researchers have recently helped to condense the long-winded paperwork down from 25 pages to three to help make the process less daunting to vulnerable parents.

“There should definitely be more onus on doctors looking after parents in the latter weeks of pregnancy,” he added.

Twenty world-leading experts in the use of placenta treatment to avoid stillbirths met yesterday in Manchester to discuss new methods of tackling stillbirth.

Photo courtesy of Trevor Bair, with thanks.

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