Infant Loss in Australia

15 Oct 2018 speech

I thank the member for Canberra for her advocacy on this very important issue, for moving the motion today and for sharing her very personal story with us this morning. It's a very brave thing to do—and we probably don't do it enough in this place—because it does make a difference when all of the women and the families sitting out there see you talking about these sorts of things. It gives them hope that, first of all, we understand and that we're working on things that really matter to them. As a lot of people in this place probably know, the member for Canberra and I are very passionate about supporting women's health around reproductive issues, and we have already done a lot of good work together on endometriosis, where we have achieved significant outcomes for women in a very short space of time. While our male colleagues can understand these issues, they don't personally physically go through them, so there is a difference that a woman's perspective does make on these sorts of things, as the member for Canberra has just very bravely outlined.

I'm pleased to speak on this issue today, because stillbirth awareness is a critical issue for us to educate women, families and the medical profession about across Australia. This awareness and education has the potential to save the lives of unborn babies. My understanding of this issue has been helped by the South Australian organisation Still Aware. I want to pay tribute to their incredible advocacy on stillbirth awareness today. Claire Foord founded Still Aware because of her own deeply personal and tragic experience. In February 2014, Claire and her husband welcomed a baby girl, Alfie. Alfie was stillborn at term without explanation. Alfie had no illness and no identified issues, but she was born still. Despite her indescribable grief, Claire decided she would do everything in her power to prevent other women from suffering the tragedy that she and her family suffered. Now, as CEO of Still Aware, Claire works tirelessly to ensure other mothers do not have to go through the same loss. Still Aware is a not-for-profit organisation that aims to raise awareness of the occurrence of stillbirth and what prevention strategies can be used by expectant mothers. It also provides support to families who have lived through this terrible tragedy.

'Stillbirth' is defined as the death of a baby beyond 20 weeks gestation. Sadly, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, around 2,200 babies are born still in Australia every year. This is about double the number of road fatalities. While we all know about road fatalities and how to prevent them, too many women don't know about stillbirth. Too many women don't know about the risk factors and signs that could save their unborn baby's life. At the moment, there's no mandatory educational training for clinicians and no mandatory information provided to women when they're pregnant. Educating expectant mothers on the signs to look for, including reduced fetal movement or unusual fetal movement and safer sleeping positions while pregnant, could help save an unborn baby's life. The message is very clear: if you are concerned about your baby, don't wait— seek medical assistance immediately.

International experience suggests that it is possible to reduce the instance of stillbirth through education. In Norway, mothers monitoring their baby's movements daily in the third trimester, which is 28 weeks onwards, resulted in a 30 per cent reduction in stillbirth. In New Zealand, a 30 per cent drop in unexplained late-term stillbirth over three years coincided with the introduction of midwives providing sleep position advice to pregnant women as part of their antenatal care. This work was supported by the findings of three studies which showed that, when a pregnant mother sleeps on her back, the risk of stillbirth is increased.

Here in Australia we haven't seen these sorts of declines in stillbirth rates, and I believe it is critical that we do. I was genuinely shocked to learn that, over the past 20 years, there has not been a decline in the number of babies born still. I'd like to acknowledge the work that Still Aware and the Stillbirth Foundation do to promote education, awareness and research about stillbirth in Australia.

The government is committed to supporting those affected by pregnancy and infant loss and to improving infant and maternal health outcomes. In this year's budget, we announced nearly $18 million for the Maternal Health and First 2000 Days research program. I note the opposition's announcement yesterday on stillbirth and I will look very carefully at their proposal. I will continue to work with the Minister for Health on behalf of all women and families so that we can reduce the rate of babies born still here in Australia.