HC Deb 02 March 1938 vol 332 cc1116-20
Major Neven-Spence

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for the registration of still-births in Scotland. Perhaps I should explain for the benefit of hon. Members who are not familiar with the terms, that "still-birth" and "still-born" apply to a child which has issued from its mother after the twenty-eighth week of pregnancy, and which has not, at any time after being completely expelled from its mother, breathed or shown any other sign of life. The Bill is not intended to deal with miscarriages, whether criminal, legal or brought about by natural causes. It is somewhat painful for a Scottish Member to have to confess that Scotland, almost alone among civilised nations, does not provide for the registration of still-births. I have here a list of 38 principal civilised nations of the world in which still-births are registered, and Scotland is not in that list. It shares this unenviable distinction with Palestine and Ireland.

There is, of course, a case for this Bill on purely statistical grounds. In England, still-births as well as live births are registered and enter into the computation of the maternal mortality rate. In Scotland only live births are so registered and used. Therefore, when you compare the English with the Scottish rate, or the Scottish rate with those of other countries where still-births are registered, you do not get a true comparison. When it is remembered that a child is deemed to have been born alive if it shows any sign of life, however fleeting after it has been born, the distinction between a still-birth and a death immediately after birth does not seem to be a very substantial one. When this matter is considered from the point of view of maternal mortality, the vital question is not so much whether a child has been born alive or dead, but the fact that a child has been born at all. I do not wish to stress unduly the statistical side of the question; after the experience of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health, it is rather like handling a live hedgehog; but I would like to say in passing that vital statistics are pointers of medical research which reveal defects in public health administration and ultimately are a guide in legislating for improved standards of public health.

There are more weighty reasons for supporting this Bill than the mere rounding off of the Scottish registration system. Hon. Members will recollect that recently we had a report from the Committee on Health Services in Scotland. In paragraph 533 of that report, the Committee draw attention to the fact that strong representations were made to them in favour of the registration of still-births in Scotland, and in their summing up they made a specific recommendation to that effect. It has long been held by those in charge of public health administration in Scotland that it is desirable that still-births should be registered, for the reason that they believe that, if these births were registered, the information so obtained might throw some light on the causes of the wastage of infant life, maternal mortality, and puerperal morbidity. Vital statistics dealing with these matters in Scotland show unduly high rates, and it will be within the recollection of hon. Members that we have had many Debates in this House on these subjects. It is a little sad to reflect that, in spite of all the efforts we have made in Scotland to deal with this problem, we have made so little headway. Scotland has an infantile mortality rate of 82 per 1,000. In England the rate is 59, in Switzerland 47, in the Netherlands 39, and in New Zealand 31 per 1,000.

Mr. MacLaren

Get rid of your slums in Scotland.

Major Neven-Spence

It is sad to reflect that in Scotland, where we pride ourselves on having one of the finest medical schools in the world, and also on our reforming zeal, we should have an infantile mortality rate nearly three times as great as that of New Zealand, itself largely peopled by persons of Scottish descent. The same criticism can be levelled at the maternal mortality rate in Scotland, which is 6 per 1,000 and is not showing any sign of decrease. I have no desire to exaggerate the dangers of child-birth, because for the great majority of women it is a perfectly normal physiological process, and I do not believe we do any good by directing a great deal of publicity on to the pathological side of the question. That merely upsets those who are normal, and does not do very much good to those who may have abnormal pregnancies. Nevertheless, there is good cause for the grave concern that is felt in Scotland over the very high rates of infantile and maternal mortality. I may point out that, if our infantile mortality rate of 82 per 1,000 in Scotland were only as low as 59 which is the rate in England—and which itself is nothing to boast about—2,000 fewer infants would die in Scotland every year. It is partly because I am convinced of the bearing of still-births on the questions of infantile mortality and maternal mortality that I am urging this Bill upon the House.

Having appealed to hon. Members on statistical and medical grounds, I wish now to approach the matter from a rather different point of view. It has always seemed to me that in this House we handle statistics in a slightly cold-blooded manner. Would it not do us all good to remember that behind these percentages there lies a mass of human suffering? Considered from the statistical and medical point of view, still-births are merely part of a statistical and public health problem, but considered from the humanitarian point of view they mean a great deal of suffering. To normal parents a still-birth, or the death of a child shortly after birth, is a very real tragedy, and it is a blow which falls with particular severity on the mother, inflicting on her mind a wound from which she may not recover for months, or even years.

Having given hon. Members what I hope are three good reasons, statistical, medical and humanitarian, for supporting this Bill, I wish now to say very briefly what the Bill consists of. It is a short Bill, and the only point I need mention is that it introduces a slight difference as compared with the English Acts in that it provides for the registration of the cause of the still-birth wherever it can be ascertained. I trust that, in my Parliamentary youth and inexperience, and in my desire not to take up too much of the time of the House, I have not left anything unsaid that could have furthered the cause I have at heart. Hope springs eternal in the private Member's breast, especially where his offspring in the shape of a private Member's Bill is concerned. I hope that this Bill will not itself be stillborn; I hope that hon. Members will not be so hard-hearted as to commit infanticide upon it on its Second Reading; and I hope that when at the end of the Session, following the "slaughter of the innocents," we compute the mortality rate of private Members' Bills, my promising infant will not be registered among the slain.

Mr. Buchanan rose

Mr. Speaker

Does the hon. Member rise to oppose the Bill?

Mr. Buchanan

Yes, Sir. I do not intend to divide the House on the Bill, because on general principles I like a private Member's Bill to be given a chance, but as far as I and my friends are concerned, we are opposed to the Measure, and our silence to-day is not to be taken as acquiescence in it. I do not want to follow the hon. and gallant Member into the weighty issues that he raised as to infantile and maternal mortality, but I would point out that, inside the City of Glasgow, the infantile death rate is three times as high in my division as it is in Pollokshields, a halfpenny car ride away, while where I reside, five minutes' walk from my division, the death rate is half what it is inside the constituency. Comparisons of this kind raise great issues, into which I do not intend to enter to-day. I only wish to say, on behalf of myself and my friends, that we do not accept the principles of the Bill, and that, when it comes before the House after it has been printed, we reserve to ourselves every right to oppose it.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Major Neven-Spence, Miss Horsbrugh, Dr. Howitt, Mr. Johnston, Mr. Graham Kerr, Mr. Mathers, Mr. George Morrison, Sir Archibald Sinclair, Mr. Henderson Stewart, and Sir Douglas Thomson.