MPs Shed Tears during this Emotional Discussion in Parliament

Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day – 22/10/2009 (Hansard) – NSW Parliament  


Mrs SHELLEY HANCOCK (South Coast) [1.00 pm]: I move:
That this House:

(1) notes that the USA and Canada recognise 15 October each year as Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day;

(2) notes the efforts of South Coast resident Nicole Ballinger to effect a similar Remembrance Day in New South Wales and Australia; and

(3) calls on the Government to give consideration to recognising an annual Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day (preferably 15 October) in New South Wales.

I am pleased to move this important motion today. It is a simple motion, and therefore should not be controversial. No member should speak against it. This is an important issue for women who have lost babies through either miscarriage or stillborn births. It is important that those women have some recognition, acknowledgement and support during their time of grieving because many mothers who have lost infants in this manner continue to grieve, and their grief is profound. This motion, of which I gave notice 12 months ago, is the result of significant lobbying from a lady called Nicole Ballinger who came to my office. There is also a support group in my electorate.

Nicole was concerned that when women have miscarriages or stillborn births they are merely told that they can have another baby and to get on with their lives and forget about it. Unfortunately, there is enormous grief, which is shared by their husbands, their siblings and other family members. It is important to respect these women, to acknowledge what has happened to them and to support them. I imagine this will not be a controversial debate. I acknowledge that the member for Macquarie Fields is at the table and I respect his medical credentials. I hope that he supports the motion, which merely asks the Government to give consideration to recognising an annual pregnancy and infant loss remembrance day. I am not calling on the Government to do it; I am merely asking the Government to consider it.

I can imagine the defence that because it should be a day recognised annually throughout Australia, the matter should be passed on to the Federal Government. My response is that New South Wales can do something on its own for a change. The State Government should start lobbying the Federal Government if it considers the matter is important and lead the way, rather than passing it on to a Federal Government authority. I repeat some of the comments I made last year when I spoke on this matter in the House. Basically, I support the establishment of a pregnancy and infant loss remembrance day in New South Wales, as occurs in Canada and the United States if America. It is interesting – and at the same time disturbing – to note that 32 percent of pregnancies end in loss and that one in four women in New South Wales has suffered a miscarriage. That is pretty significant. Not only does each woman who has lost a child grieve that loss, but so does her partner, family and siblings, as I stated before.

For those women who have suffered this loss, such as my constituent Mrs Nicole Ballinger, and many others in my electorate, recognition is a very important part of the healing process. It should be noted that the statistics of pregnancy and infant loss are perhaps higher than most people expect. It is an issue that is forgotten and swept under the carpet, with women told to get on with their lives. In the developed world an estimated 500,000 miscarriages occur each year, the vast majority of which have no explanation. One in every 148 babies is stillborn, with 73 per cent of those unexplained. There is still a lot we don’t know about miscarriage and stillborn births. One in every 2,000 babies dies from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). We have come a long way in trying to understand the causes for SIDS, yet those deaths still occur. One can only imagine the statistics for the developing world.

The tragedy of these statistics is compounded by the fact that many of the deaths could have been prevented with prenatal screening. For instance, vasa praevia is a condition where the mother often shows no symptoms at all. One in every 2,500 births results in stillbirth due to severe haemorrhaging caused by vasa praevia. Its infant mortality rate is 95 per cent, yet when the condition is diagnosed prenatally using ultrasound technology the survival rate is 100 per cent. We can certainly do a lot more to prevent infant death. One in three pregnancies will end in loss, and the grief that follows is often suffered in silence, as the mothers affected may feel a sense of guilt or feel that society has judged them as being somehow responsible. This occurs largely due to ignorance and prejudice. Mrs. Ballinger, who suffered four miscarriages due to blighted ova, has not only suffered those losses but has also experienced the judgment of others and their inability to provide comfort and empathise. There is also an expectation that women who suffer miscarriage will soon recover from their loss and simply try to conceive again. Women are just expected to get on with their lives without grieving.

I am informed that for many women the sense of grief and loss following such an event is intense, prolonged, agonising and exacerbated merely by the sight of another pregnant woman or a young family. It is interesting to note that in other countries, such as Japan, the grief of pregnancy and infant loss is acknowledged and supported by special temples and shrines devoted specifically to honouring Japan’s tiniest angels. In the Buddhist faith there is also the Ojizo-san, a God who protects unborn babies. Statues of the Ojizo-san adorn these temples a well as private homes and gardens. The grieving in Japan have a place to go to honour their babies and a social standard that is caring and sensitive to their loss. However, in Australia silence, guilt, fear and intense grief characterise the long, private struggle of each survivor.

Therefore, on behalf of all those women who are grieving in silence I request that the Premier set aside a day each year so that we can remember, acknowledge and support those women who have suffered in this manner. It has been formally requested that it be 15 October because this day has been set aside elsewhere, in countries such as Canada and the United States of America. On that day we will honour not only the lives of babies who have been lost but also the women and their families. Finally, I wish to acknowledge the efforts of Nicole Ballinger. She has fought an ongoing battle to have 15 October recognised. She started this campaign probably two years ago. She has also lobbied the local Federal Member of Parliament. We have come at this issue with a two-pronged approach so that Federal and State can work together. Nicole has received responses. I have also written to the Minister and the Premier. The Premier bypassed my request and referred it to the Minister for Health. The Minister for Health did not respond but I received correspondence from NSW Health addressed to Mrs Ballinger, which unfortunately was most inappropriate.

The letter does not address the need for a remembrance day. It outlines problems in early pregnancy and refers to the work of early pregnancy units and early pregnancy assessment services – which are very useful, and I acknowledge that advances have been made. The letter states that women in rural communities now receive improved antenatal care through medical and midwifery assessment, support, advice and information. The letter contains considerable information about services and recognition of women who have problems in early pregnancy, but it is not an appropriate response to the core of this motion and the lobbying by Mrs Ballinger and her supporters – that is, the need to set aside a special day to remember babies who have died and to support women who are suffering enormous grief. It is terribly sad that often blame is attributed to women when they lose their child. It is often suggested that somehow they may not have looked after themselves during pregnancy, or there is an implication that they did something wrong. Those women feel that blame, and fear, and guilt enormously. Instead, they should be acknowledged and supported.

There are many other so-called victims in our society who are supported in many circumstances, and there are many mechanisms for providing that support. But women who lose a child do not really have a support mechanism – except for ladies such as those in Nowra, who meet regularly to support each other. If we had a national pregnancy and infant loss remembrance day, it would mean so much to them. I have not suffered this kind of experience; I have been lucky. But I sympathise deeply with the women who have come to me. I feel that their grief and loss should be acknowledged and supported, and that we should assist them through the New South Wales Parliament. It is an important issue. I call on the New South Wales Labor Government and members opposite to acknowledge what I have said and provide any assistance they can.

Dr ANDREW McDONALD (Macquarie Fields – Parliamentary Secretary) [1:11 pm]: I thank the member for South Coast for moving the motion and bringing the matter to the attention of the House. I can inform her that the Government will support her motion. In my opinion this is one of the most important motions to be debated since my election to this place in 2007. One in four women will suffer at least one miscarriage, and at least 32 per cent of pregnancies result in pregnancy loss. This is often an unmentioned and unrecognised tragedy that affects the families involved for generations because of the grief, depression and sadness it causes. In many cases the families involved do not feel that they receive adequate support from the wider community.

I can state from personal experience that the greatest tragedy anyone can ever witness is the loss of a child. I could name many of the children I have been involved with over the past 30 years, and I could describe in vivid detail the circumstances of their loss. It is something that stays with families forever. Indeed, often the last words mothers utter when they die are that they will be reunited with their lost child who may have died 50 or 60 years before. It is something that stays with mothers, fathers and families forever. I would like to pass on my condolences to Ms Ballinger and salute her determination in pursuing this matter. Having four miscarriages is a dreadful legacy for anybody to have to live with. Ms Ballinger cites eloquently the inability of many to provide comfort at this time of dreadful loss.

The rate of pregnancy loss is higher than expected in the general community. That is one of the major reasons why a pregnancy and infant loss remembrance day is necessary. This is a subject that has been kept quiet in the wider community for too long. Many people, when experiencing miscarriage, are surprised at the number of others who describe having lost their own child, because it is such a dreadful tragedy. It is not just early pregnancy loss that we are talking about. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome is still a problem in one in 2,000 births. That is a reduction over the past 15 years, from one in 500. We have come a long way as a result of extensive public messages about the need for everybody to be conscious of the preventative measures that have to be taken to ct the rate of sudden infant death syndrome. Those campaigns have been extremely successful. It is only through everybody knowing about early pregnancy loss that we can do something to improve the public health messages that may reduce the pregnancy loss rate.

Unfortunately, not all pregnancy losses are preventable. Many of them are preventable, but not all. The tragedy of stillbirth at or near term is often a complete surprise. Indeed, stillbirth is unpreventable through many modern medical technologies. Electronic foetal monitoring, for example, which is one of the mainstays of medical treatment has not been proved infallible in predicting or preventing stillbirth. The tragedy of pregnancy loss affects the lives of everybody involved forever. As I said, often the tragedy affects the families involved for generations, because the depression and sadness that is often caused affects people’s ability to parent their children. I have found untreated depression to be extremely common and often unrecognised because this is a loss not usually discussed in the wider community.

I have also found post-traumatic stress disorder to be extremely common. As the member for South Coast eloquently described, often the sight of a pram, the sight of a pregnant woman, or simply walking past an antenatal clinic will provoke vigorous flashbacks in mothers who have lost a child. I am aware that perinatal mortality is strongly socioeconomically determined. It is a great tragedy that many of our vulnerable communities, such as the Aboriginal community with which I work, have very high rates of pregnancy loss. This is another tragedy that is often not spoken about, and fort that reason we do not enough to address this dreadful problem in our most disadvantaged communities.

The Government supports the use of 15 October as the date on which to recognise the tragedy of pregnancy loss, as occurs in Canada and elsewhere. Pregnancy loss is a tragedy that needs to be brought into the public domain and discussed in the wider community. Parents who have lost a child need to be supported and comforted and their grief needs to be recognised by everybody who has to deal with them, including professionals, family and the wider community. Pregnancy loss is an issue that for far too long has not been adequately addressed by the wider community. This is a perfect opportunity to do something to help these families. Pregnancy loss will be with us for many generations, and this is a wonderful opportunity and a wonderful idea. I pay tribute to Ms Ballinger and also to the member for South Coast for bringing this motion to the attention of the House. I wish that from this motion will come a day on which we can all remember the tragedy of pregnancy loss, for the benefit of all of our families.

Mrs JUDY HOPWOOD (Hornsby) [1:18 pm]: I also totally support the motion moved by the member for South Coast, which calls on the Government to give consideration to establishing an annual pregnancy and infant loss remembrance day in New South Wales, preferably on 15 October. I do so for a number of reasons. The motion is timely given that a fundraiser will be held this Saturday night to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of St Ives Rotaract and to raise money for the Stillbirth Foundation Australia. The event is being organised by Evan and Barb Burrell of my electorate. It will be held at the Hornsby RSL Club, and the funds raised during the celebration at the fortieth anniversary of the St Ives Rotaract will go to the Stillbirth Foundation.

When I raised with Evan and Barb Burrell the possibility of the Government establishing 15 October as the pregnancy and infant loss remembrance day, they were thrilled. This year they suffered the tragic loss of their son Thomas through stillbirth when Barb was about 25 weeks pregnant. Evan and Barb are trying to make something positive out of something so negative. They experienced enormous grief – perfectly normal grief over losing something so precious. Evan and Barb have a long history of community work. In order to assist with their grief they are turning a personal tragedy into something that will help many others: raising funds for the Stillbirth Foundation Australia. I will read into the Hansard part of an email that Evan sent me today. It states:

Thank you for speaking with me today. Here are some of the details about stillbirth in last Thursday’s Wave of Light campaign on 15 October, which was also International Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day as well as Barb’s birthday. It was a tough time for us, as you can understand. As I said over the phone, I do not think that they got much exposure from the media or the Government.

That is a tragedy in itself. The motion is timely and happily supported by both sides to give recognition to such an important day of remembrance. Everyone in this House will know of a family member or someone in their wider circle of friends who has suffered a stillbirth. Everyone who returns a positive pregnancy test result expects to deliver a healthy baby, but unfortunately a percentage of pregnancies are not successful and babies do not survive.

About two years ago, I had the sad experience of my cousin’s son and his wife losing a baby girl. The woman was approximately two weeks from full term and in the last couple of weeks her baby girl died. That family then had to confront the tragedy of a stillborn birth and its subsequent difficulties, including attempting to explain to an older brother what had happened to his baby sister. I tried very had to collect
information for them to assist the family in explaining to the little boy why his sister had died. A number of women in my wider circle of friends have also suffered stillbirths. One case involved a twin-to-twin transfusion and both twins died in utero. Sadly, the outcome for that woman was not a happy one. I give 110 per cent to this motion. I commend the member for South Coast for her initiative. Many people will support her call and it will be a wonderful day of recognition – preferably on 15 October. I look forward to its official recognition next year.

Mr GRANT McBRIDE (The Entrance) [1:22 pm]: I support the motion and I commend the member for the South Coast for bringing it to the attention of the House. I also hope what happens in this parliament today will be reflected across the whole of Australia and at the end of the process we will have a day that commemorates this loss. Our sixth child, Gabrielle, was born 25 years ago. Gabrielle was full term but died two days after she was born. It is now 25 years later but the pain remains the same – it never goes away. Prior to that we had five normal births. They were all healthy kids, and happily, are now healthy adults. After Gabrielle we had two more children. They, too, were healthy kids and, happily, are now healthy adults.

It does not matter what counselling or assistance you receive, it is such a personal thing that it never leaves you – it stays with you all the time. Having said that, I have always found that every sad experience in my life has an upside. The upside in this case is that each of our children carries with them a recognition of Gabrielle’s life. They talk about her as if she were here today. Through her death she has transmitted a sense of love that would not have existed otherwise. We celebrate her death because we see the positive way that it has shaped the whole of our family. All our kids have a sensitivity to people that goes beyond what they took from that particular experience.

What I have learned from our experience is that you should never say to a person who has had this experience that you know what their pain is like. No one ever knows what another’s pain is like. This sort of pain is unique and it will affect people differently. It can be positive or it can be negative. What we are doing in this Parliament will be of enormous help to whole range of people, bot only today but well into the future. I commend the member for South Coast for moving this motion—it is not often when I commend Opposition members. This is a very important matter. It seems small in some ways but the impact it has on those people who have been through this experience is enormous. It happened to us, but at the end of the day, my family has benefited from it, even though Gabrielle lived only for two days.

Mrs SHELLEY HANCOCK (South Coast) [1:26 pm], in reply: I thank most sincerely the member for Macquarie Fields, the member for Hornsby and the member for The Entrance for their contributions. I thank the member for Macquarie Fields for his absolutely sincere contribution. I always find him to be an extremely sincere individual. The member for Macquarie Fields brought his profound medical experience to the debate on the motion, and I thank him for indicating the Government’s support for something that seems so simple yet may affect the lives of so many. I thank the member for Hornsby, who always shows extreme enthusiasm for matters such as this. She can relate to events in her community as she is always in her community supporting those who are suffering or who need assistance of some kind. The member for Hornsby refereed to the upcoming Stillbirth Foundation fundraiser for the Sudden Infant Death Syndrome Foundation. Such events occur around the State an the nation at different times, but would it not be nice to have one day of the year when we could all come together and remember these events that affect the lives of so many people?

Finally, the member for The Entrance epitomised what the motion is all about. He demonstrated through his sincere emotions that this kind of grief lasts for a long time. It is not just the grief of a mother, but the grief of a father, siblings and other family members. It goes on and on, and has so many effects on people’s lives. Those who have had successful pregnancies and those who have seen our grandchildren born – my first grandson was born in the past two months – can not empathise with others because we have not shared their experience. Yet as members in this place we need to understand when people come to us and say it is an issue for them. We should combine our efforts to try to do something to assist them.

Often the Government or Opposition opposes a motion moved by a member on the other side of the House for no good reason other than that we are on different sides of the political fence. However, on important issues, such as the subject of this motion, we come together. I am gratified that the House will support my motion. Many members are not present in the House because they are attending to other matters. I hope they will read the Hansard and reflect on the fact that there are issues that bring us together. As I said in my inaugural speech, there are certain issues that will always bring us together. Despite our political persuasion, we agree on important issues.

I frequently see Nicole Ballinger at events and functions in Nowra. She is tireless in her efforts. She tells me that they are hanging in there, they are fighting, and they will make it happen. I concur with her. We will continue until we get a positive outcome. I believe that with the support of the Government for my motion we will get a good result. I believe that the Government has supported my motion not because it would be politically incorrect to do oppose it but because it will result in a positive outcome. Perhaps that means working with NSW Health or the Federal Minister for Health to institute a national day. We must have concrete results. These women need to know that we have spoken in this place not just to hear ourselves speak but to get a positive outcome.

I call on the member for Macquarie Fields, the member for The Entrance and the member for Hornsby, who are present in the Chamber, to remember this motion and take away the lesson that we should not give up on this issue, which is vitally important to many women in our State, in our country and throughout the world. Great strides are being made in support of pregnant women and mothers who are struggling with their babies. All sorts of advances are being made, far more than we envisaged, in the health system. But today we come together and ask for a special remembrance day to honour the babies who have died in stillbirth or miscarriages and to recognise, acknowledge and support their mothers, fathers and siblings.

Question – That the motion be agreed to –put and resolved in the affirmative.

Motion agreed to.

[The Assistant-Speaker (Mr Grant McBride) left the chair at 1:32 pm. The House resumed at 2:15 pm]

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