Expectant mothers who suffer a late miscarriage could be given new rights to register their baby on official records, Jeremy Hunt has said.
Currently, if a woman loses her baby before 24 weeks there is no formal process for her to register the loss if she wishes.
But if the loss occurs after 24 weeks, it counts as a stillbirth and mothers have a right to register the baby’s name and receive a certificate of registration.
A ‘late miscarriage’ is usually classed as between 14 and 24 weeks of pregnancy.
Currently, NHS trusts are encouraged to develop a system of hospital-based commemorative certification for foetuses that are not classified as stillbirths.
The Health and Social Care Secretary has ordered a review to establish whether the existing laws should be changed.
It will also look at whether NHS staff should undergo more training in how to care for couples who suffer miscarriages. Doctors believe as many as a quarter of women who have a positive pregnancy test suffer a miscarriage.
Most are thought to be caused by genetic abnormalities in the foetus which means that it fails to properly develop.
But certain lifestyle factors have been linked to higher rates of miscarriage including smoking, strenuous exercise and obesity.
Mr Hunt said: ‘There is nothing more agonising than losing a child.
‘I am passionate about our national mission to reduce stillbirths and neonatal deaths.
‘But we also want to take a fresh look at what more we can do as a health service and Government to help support families who do face this devastating loss – particularly for those who lose babies through late miscarriage or neonatal deaths under 24 weeks.
‘Of course, nothing can take away that pain, but we think there is more to be done to guarantee the sensitive and compassionate care we would all want for our families at this most distressing time.’
The review was prompted by Tim Loughton, Tory MP for East Worthing and Shoreham, who raised the matter in the Commons in 2014.
A constituent called Hayley had approached him after losing two of her babies before 24 weeks, and explained how she had suffered in silence.
She told him of her despair over how neither loss could be registered even though she had carried the babies for two-thirds of a full pregnancy term.
Mr Hunt paid tribute to the MP for ‘bringing this important issue to Parliament’s attention.’
Another woman, Ursula, said she was nearly 20 weeks pregnant when she lost her baby, Tobias, in March last year. She said the language used by staff was ‘cold and clinical’ and she was made to feel as though Tobias was a ‘by-product’ rather than a baby.
Many NHS trusts provide women or couples with a certificate recording a pregnancy that was lost before 24 weeks of gestation, if they choose to accept it.
Speaking at the time, Mr Loughton said: ‘Losing a child is a traumatic experience at the best of times but giving birth to a stillborn child whose existence is effectively not acknowledged is particularly harsh and I think the law needs to be changed.
‘Whilst there is an informal system where a hospital can issue a certificate to acknowledge a stillbirth has taken place, it is not the same as the state acknowledging the existence of a baby who may have missed out on registration by a matter of days due to the current threshold.’
The NHS estimates that one in six pregnancies end in miscarriage. Many occur before a woman is even aware she is pregnant.