Wexford couple's fight for stillbirth law legislation
A Wexford couple are calling for the law to be changed in relation to the process through which parents of stillborn children can seek compensation in instances where the hospital involved accepts negligent liability.
It's six years since Carne couple Derek and Mignon Underwood's son Conor was stillborn at Wexford General Hospital, on September 25, 2012.
Having begun litigation against the HSE in January 2013, the Underwood's ultimately won their case and received a formal letter of apology on behalf of the organisation, the hospital, and those who were involved in caring for Mignon and Conor at the time of the birth.
When they met with this newspaper they outlined their fight to get the law changed to ensure that what they endured, and in particular what Mignon went through both at the time Conor was stillborn and the subsequent legal process, will never happen to anyone else.
The couple's fight has been taken up by Irish Labour Party politician, Alan Kelly TD, who published a new Bill to amend the Civil Liability Act so that a family who lose an unborn child due to medical negligence is entitled to seek compensation for mental distress.
'Parents of a stillborn child do not have the same recourse as parents of children who are born alive and then subsequently pass away,' said Derek.
A significant aspect of the law as it stands is that parents cannot currently seek compensation for mental distress caused by the death of a child in the womb - as a result medical negligence - but only for injuries caused to the health of the mother.
'If a child is born alive and then dies from medical neglect that is all you have to prove but if a child is stillborn you have to prove that the mother suffered emotionally and that's wrong,' said Derek.
Mignon highlighted that at present parents can only sue for the emotional suffering and only relating to the mother.
'The father has no recourse at all,' she said.
'If I had died Derek could only have claimed for the neglect that would have caused my death but would not have been able to sue in relation to Conor,' she added.
'Emotional suffering is very hard to prove for the dad.'
The couple believe that changing the law would also help with the overall healing process for bereaved parents.
'The people responsible when something like this happens need to be punished and reprimanded because at present they are taken under the wing of the HSE and there is no effective punishment,' said Mignon.
'In other jobs if people get it wrong they would be out but that's not the case with the HSE,' she added.
The Underwood's case was settled in December and the HSE issued an unreserved apology to them for the 'shortcomings' in the care provided to Mignon and Conor.
It was at that point that Deputy Kelly got involved and Deputy Brendan Howlin is also 'fully behind' their campaign to have the law changed.
'Every politician that we spoke to subsequently was completely unaware of the situation as it stands with the law,' said Derek.
'Alan Kelly drafted the Bill in June but the Dail is now on summer break so we don't expect there will be any more progress until after that obviously but we are going to keep pushing for this to be passed,' he added.
'When he launched the Bill he was shocked that there has been no inquiry into what happened in our case at all.'
The Underwoods are calling for a full public inquiry to take place and say it's very important that it is open to the public and is transparent.
'He [Deputy Kelly] said there needs to be a public inquiry and we feel very strongly about that too,' said Derek.
He went on to comment: 'When people avail of the HSE's services they should get the best service possible by the best people possible.'
The Underwoods have also asked the HSE itself to support their call for a change in the law and in their appeal highlighted their view that the health and well-being of patients should 'trump' the fact that the HSE is not a political organisation.
It was a point Derek reiterated to this newspaper; 'We know it's not a political organisation but surely the well-being of patients should outweigh everything else. That's why we're calling on the HSE to support the Bill as well.'
The couple, who have two other children, said people always put their trust in doctors but added the system should be designed so that people are better informed: 'If you need care for your wife and unborn child you should be able to make a choice that is best for your family and not one that is just given to you.'
'The HSE is a complicated machine but some simple answers could make it transparent,' said Derek.
'When you suffer the death or your child through neglect, whether stillborn or they die after birth, you should not have to suffer again because of the process,' said Mignon.
'The fact there has been no inquiry at all to-date really is astounding,' said Derek.