Ending a pregnancy for fetal abnormality

Deciding whether to have a post-mortem

Parents will usually be advised by a doctor about whether they should consider a post mortem for the baby. If parents decide to go ahead, the baby will be examined soon after his/her death (ideally within 72 hours), the baby's body is usually returned within 2 weeks. The aim of a post mortem is to try to pinpoint exactly what was wrong with the baby and find out the extent of his/her problems. In many cases a post mortem will confirm the baby's original diagnosis, but it can uncover other more serious problems. 

If parents decide that they wish the baby to have a post mortem, the mother has to give signed consent. Understandably some women found it upsetting being expected to make yet another decision about the baby at such a difficult time, but others had no doubts at all about the procedure because they wanted to know if the baby had a condition that could recur in future pregnancies. One woman felt it was her 'responsibility' to have a post mortem to find out the truth about her baby's condition. 

When the post mortem confirmed the baby's problems, most parents said they felt relieved - as one woman explained, 'you do sort of niggle, especially before the post mortem comes back, what if they were wrong?' Some parents whose babies were found to have more serious problems than first thought, felt the decision to end the pregnancy was justified.

Occasionally when parents had decided to end the pregnancy because they were advised by doctors that the baby was likely to have certain problems, the post mortem could reveal that the baby was not as badly affected as expected - when this happened parents could feel profound guilt. 

When parents knew they wanted to have another baby they were often keen to have a post mortem to find out whether the baby had inherited certain problems, and in some cases whether further tests were necessary. Sometimes post mortems had  involved parts of the baby's body being sent to different hospitals for specialist tests, which could delay the final result.

Not everyone wanted the baby to have a post mortem. Some women didn't like the idea of the baby being 'cut' or 'messed about' in any way after his/her death and wanted to retain the baby's dignity and keep the body intact. 

Some parents willingly consented to a post mortem because they wanted to help medical research and hoped more could be done in future to help babies with similar problems. 

When post mortems took so long that they stopped parents from burying or cremating the baby - one couple said it took 10 weeks before the baby's body was returned to their local hospital (this is unusual as the baby’s body is normally returned within 2 weeks) - they felt angry and upset though others seemed more prepared that a delay was the result of having a post mortem.

Some people wished that hospital staff had given them more information about the post mortem and talked to them about possible delays. One or two women would have liked staff to ask them for their thoughts about the post mortem rather than assuming they wanted the baby back as soon as possible. Though some parents resented any delay caused by the post mortem, one or two other parents said they wanted everything possible to be tested even if it meant delaying the funeral. 

Some parents felt extremely upset by the way they and their babies were treated around the time of the post mortem, though in most cases mistakes had happened well before 2003 when the Department of Health issued a new code of conduct about post mortems (see resources for link). 

Last reviewed July 2017.
last updated
June 2014.


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