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When things go wrong during childbirth - the impact of perinatal injury, stillbirth and neonatal loss on fathers

Posted: 21/04/2022

The recent and sad loss of the twin son of Cristiano Ronaldo and his girlfriend, Georgina Rodriguez, during birth has brought into sharp focus the impact of losing a child, or witnessing injury to a child, during childbirth or the neonatal period. This is an event which is devastating for all involved and can cause lasting psychological effects.

Historically, the literature and bereavement and care guidelines have focussed on women, but more recent studies have looked at the impact on men.

An Australian study by Penelope Turton et al, entitled ‘Psychological impact of stillbirth on fathers in the subsequent pregnancy and puerperium’ (Br J Psychiatry 2006 Feb), suggested that when a previous pregnancy had ended in stillbirth, a father in a subsequent pregnancy was more likely to experience significant anxiety and post-traumatic stress antenatally, when compared with the control group. However, these symptoms reduced postnatally, after the birth of a live baby.

A study based at St George’s Hospital, London by Kate Louise Obst et al, entitled ‘Men’s grief following pregnancy loss and neonatal loss; a systematic review and emerging theoretical model’ (BMC Pregnancy Childbirth 2020 Jan), noted that, following the review of various databases where there had been pregnancy or neonatal loss, men’s grief experiences were highly varied. There was an appreciation that men face different challenges, including an expectation to support their partners and a lack of social recognition for their own grief and needs. Overall, it was noted that there needed to be accessible support for men in such loss situations. In a previous article, which is available to read here, we considered the support available for those who have experienced loss.

When fathers have suffered recognised psychiatric injuries as a result of sub-standard treatment during pregnancy and childbirth, which leads to perinatal injury to the child or child loss, some consider bringing a claim for damages. The law in this area is far from straightforward. Whereas the mother of the child is considered to be a primary victim, the father will be treated as a secondary victim. The criteria to be met for a secondary victim claim were clarified by the Court of Appeal in January 2022 in a series of joined appeals: Paul v Wolverhampton NHS Foundation Trust [2022], Polmear v Royal Cornwall Hospital NHS Trust [2022] and Purchase v Ahmed [2022].

Of particular note was the fact that, for a secondary victim to satisfy the proximity test, they must have witnessed an horrific event which was not separated in time from the negligence. This can be a difficult hurdle for secondary victims to overcome. However, it was clear that, while the Court of Appeal was bound by earlier case law, it was felt that the issues warranted consideration by the Supreme Court.

Pending such an appeal, each case will need to be considered on its own facts in terms of whether it meets the criteria as they stand.

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