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Monday, 21 May 2012
Page: 4844


Ms BURKE (ChisholmDeputy Speaker) (21:21): I move:

That this House:

(1) notes that:

(a) under current State and Territory legislation, a coroner does not have the statutory and judicial authority to investigate stillbirths, nor does the legislation (except in Queensland) indicate that coronial jurisdiction extends to stillbirths; and

(b) there are discrepancies amongst State and Territory legislation over the definition of 'person' and 'death';

(2) recognises that:

(a) approximately one per cent of babies born every year in Australia are stillborn (cited from a SA stillbirth report); and

(b) for many parents, the need to understand the cause of death and further prevent other incidences occurring in the future is important; and

(3) calls on the Government to:

(a) adopt policies and protocols that are consistent amongst the States and Territories and which specifically outline the circumstances in which a stillbirth should be investigated by a coroner; and

(b) adopt policies which:

(i) provide clear and consistent definitions of 'person', 'death' and 'stillbirth', and extend this to other relevant legislation such as the births, deaths and marriages Acts;

(ii) promote the need and development of perinatal specialists in investigations as has been recommended by independent groups such as the Australian and New Zealand Stillbirth Alliance, Perinatal Mortality Group, and Perinatal Society of Australia and New Zealand;

(iii) offer parents the opportunity to have a full and timely assessment of the factors relating to their baby's death, whilst still respecting their rights;

(iv) allow for public coronial inquiry to assist in identifying clinically important lessons from the death and contribute to research on the topic of stillbirths and early infant death; and

(v) enhance provisions that provide support and appropriate care for parents.

There is no doubt that the death of a stillborn baby is a tragic event. Recognising this, I believe we must do more to support families confronted by stillbirth, and endeavour to learn more about circumstances where these deaths could be prevented.

As a mother, I have had the privilege of bringing two beautiful children into the world. The birth of each of my children was an incredible experience—holding them for the first time, taking them home, introducing them to families and friends, and making sure that they were going to survive and thrive under my and my husband's guidance. For thousands of Australian parents each year, this experience is completely different. Stillbirths are a tragic reality for parents all around the world. I could not sympathise more with these parents who, instead of celebrating the joyous arrival of a child, are left to mourn them, often without knowing why their babies died.

Approximately one per cent of babies born every year in Australia are stillborn. Tragically, despite improvements in medical practice and technology, the number of stillbirths—more than 2,000—has not changed since the 1980s. Currently, there are discrepancies in state and territory legislation over the definition of 'a person' and 'death' that prevent coroners from investigating any deaths of stillborn babies, but for thousands of families in Australia who go through the ordeal of a stillbirth there is no doubt that the baby was a person whose death mattered.

I have had the privilege of meeting a constituent, Caroline Sugden, who has had this tragic experience, and she shared with me the tragedy of the stillbirth of her daughter. Luckily, Caroline and her partner have gone on to have two healthy children, but that was a big step. Would it happen again? Why did it happen? There were all these unanswered questions. Understandably, the loss of their daughter had a massive impact—not just on their lives but on the lives of their families and friends. This is something that was meant to end in a beautiful outcome, not a tragedy. Their grief was compounded by not knowing why their baby died. Without answers they felt left in the dark, and the advice given to them by medical staff directly after their baby's death undervalued the benefit of an autopsy in providing them with a cause of death. No formal investigation into the death of their baby was made.

Caroline and her family pursued an independent investigation into their baby's death, but by this time the placenta had been left in a bucket in a hospital fridge for nine days, unpreserved, instead of being sent for testing. Sadly, the Sugden experience is not isolated or uncommon. Many parents of stillborn children have experienced such things. There was an inquiry conducted within the SA parliament and many expressed a similar experience—the uncertainty, the unknown, the equivocal medical advice, the tragedy. The simple answer kept being given to them: 'Go away. Forget about it. Move on.' That is not what a lot of parents want. They want some answers if they can find them.

No parent can be fully prepared to deal with a tragedy such as this. We need to ensure that parents are being given full and timely information, that their wishes are respected, and that they are supported in deciding what course of action to pursue in coming to terms with a stillbirth. Adopting clear and consistent definitions of 'birth', 'person', 'death' and 'stillbirth' is needed to ensure that the rights of babies are upheld across the whole of Australia. Ensuring that parents are sufficiently informed of their options and that they are offered the opportunity for a full and timely assessment of the factors relating to their baby's death is an essential part of helping them cope with their loss and may provide answers that avoid a repeated occurrence with future pregnancies.

Allowing for public coronial inquiries into stillbirths would give us the opportunity to identify clinically important lessons from these deaths and would contribute to research on the topic of stillbirth and early infant death, potentially reducing the numbers of stillbirths occurring each year.

There are several individuals and groups from within my electorate that have contacted me concerned with extending jurisdictions for stillbirth and improving support for parents. I wish to thank all those who have been advocating on behalf of these families and on behalf of the children who did not survive.

As a government I believe that we have a responsibility to ensure that inexplicable, unexpected deaths are investigated to determine why they occurred and potentially learn how these deaths can be avoided. As mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and people in the Australian community, we have a responsibility to ensure that families affected by the death of a stillborn baby are offered adequate support to assist them through this difficult time.

Parents of a stillborn baby must remain central in determining how and when autopsies and coronial investigations are undertaken. We need to respect the wishes of families who do not want investigations but we also need to respect the wishes of those who want to be fully informed. The families should be given that choice.

This motion has come out of the dedicated efforts of those advocating on behalf of families who have been through a stillbirth. Many of these have experienced the loss of a stillbirth themselves whilst others have been urged to act after watching family members suffer. It is necessary for our future mothers, who want to know that everything possible has been done to prevent more stillbirths in the future. It will be welcomed by parents who have been telling us how the current system let them down. We need to provide a system which will do more to support parents in this hour of tragedy.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr KJ Thomson ): Is the motion seconded?