According to recent reports, an unacceptably high number of babies are dying owing to treatment by inexperienced doctors and midwives. This will come as no surprise to the many hundreds of parents every year who lose a baby in Britain's understaffed and overcrowded maternity wards, or to the even greater number of parents whose babies are left with brain damage.
Confidential research has shown that clinical errors contribute to two- thirds of all deaths in healthy babies, brought about, for the main part, by staff shortages that leave under-trained and overworked doctors in charge, with consultants seldom on hand to make critical decisions. Both the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Royal College of Midwives are calling for urgent changes to "revolutionise" Britain's labour wards.
Culpability aside, it's unlikely even these changes could compensate for the sheer trauma of an unforeseen complication during birth. Kathy MacCarthy's son Finlay was born in October 1996 after Kathy underwent an emergency Caesarean following complications in the last stages of labour. "Basically Finlay was born dead, but was resuscitated after 24 minutes," says Kathy. "He was taken into intensive care but was so profoundly brain-damaged that they detached him from the life support machines." In the event Finlay was a strong baby, and he survived. He is now two years old and suffers from severe cerebral palsy. He has extreme quadriplegia and limited spatial awareness, needs round-the-clock care and has to be fed by tube. Because Kathy had been given an emergency Caesarean under general anaesthetic, and her husband had been barred from the operating theatre, at first they were unaware of the exact circumstances surrounding Finlay's birth. Although both the consultant and the hospital manager paid a visit to Kathy's room within 24 hours of the delivery, the hospital was not forthcoming with information. "They kept saying they didn't know what had happened," says Kathy, "and we weren't sure whether that was the stock response or whether they genuinely didn't know." Given the extent of the damage Kathy and her husband, David, believe that medical staff should have let Finlay die. She believes that neither she nor her husband were ever properly consulted either about the resuscitation, or about switching off the life support machine. "They should at least have asked us, because then it would have been our decision to live with," she says. Kathy is well aware that if her lawyers give her the go-ahead to fight this case she will have to prove that if there was negligence surrounding Finlay's birth, it was not just about inappropriate treatment, but about whether or not doctors made a proper and informed decision about resuscitating him. In general, medical negligence cases are difficult to win; hospital records get lost and it's hard to prove that a doctor has not acted with due care. It is also a process of considerable trauma. Many people give up along the way - the few that pursue their case often have a lengthy legal fight on their hands. "This is where patients are so badly let down," says Joyce Robins, of the Patients' Association. "They write to the complaints manager of the Trust, plotting out their story with dates and correspondence, and still they get fobbed off. …