New Coroner’s guidance on stillbirths & live births following termination of pregnancy
3 Min Read
On 2 February 2023, the Chief Coroner published guidance to help simplify the way Coroners deal with stillbirths and live births following termination of pregnancy. A stillbirth is when a baby is born dead after 24 weeks gestation. If a baby is born alive after a termination of pregnancy, this is categorised as a live birth.
When is a coroner involved?
Normally a Coroner can only investigate a death if there has first been a life. This means a Coroner is only required to investigate when a baby is born showing signs of life, and subsequently dies. This is because the baby has had an independent life, however short, and so the circumstances of their death must be understood.
If there is uncertainty over whether or not there has been a live birth, then the Coroner can investigate that as a preliminary question.
If there has been a live birth, when should a death be reported to the coroner?
If a doctor can identify and certify a natural cause of the baby’s death, then there may be no need to report the death to the Coroner.
Otherwise, a report must be made. A Coroner must investigate if it appears there is a reasonable possibility or suspicion that:
– The death was caused by a medical treatment or procedure and there are questions about the medical care provided.
– The death was unnatural, suspicious, caused by violence or neglect.
– The cause of death is unknown.
– The pregnancy was terminated but the baby was born alive.
how do we know if there has been a ‘live birth’?
The guidance states that for a baby to have been born alive, they must have:
- ‘Issued completely from its mother’s body’ – this means “fully delivered” and could be a natural delivery or caesarean section
- ‘Shown signs of life’ – a medical opinion may be required but signs, among others, that are generally accepted include breathing, crying and/or a heartbeat
Where there is doubt, a Coroner can make enquiries to try and establish the position, or can commence an investigation. The Coroner will decide what evidence is needed, including requesting a post mortem. Statements will usually be needed from family and medical witnesses.
Live birth after termination
Where a pregnancy is legally terminated but the baby is born alive, the Coroner must investigate because a death caused by prematurity after a termination, is considered to be an ‘unnatural’ death.
This area of law, life and death is incredibly sensitive for everyone. The law has not always been applied consistently but is complicated – this guidance will be invaluable for Coroners and families alike and provides helpful clarification. It remains a difficult area and concerned families should take specialist legal advice.
We have dealt with many cases over the years where the issue of whether a baby was stillborn or showed signs of life after delivery needed to be considered. It is extremely important to families that their baby’s birth and death is recorded accurately and this guidance will help make this difficult process simpler and less agonising for all concerned.
Within our team, we have specialist expertise at representing clients through inquests to help them understand the cause of death of their baby. If you want to have a free confidential discussion with us, give us a call on 0800 044 8488 or complete our contact form here.