Kristina Keneally on the private trauma of stillbirth & the policy she hopes will better support parents

Kristina Keneally on the private trauma of stillbirth & the bill she hopes will better support parents

Kristina Keneally

Stillbirth is the death of a baby before or during birth, born at twenty or more weeks of gestation. It’s a trauma that sadly impacts too many Australian parents, with six babies a day tragically lost this way—a higher death rate than our national road toll.

22 years ago, in 1999, Labor Senator Kristina Keneally’s own daughter, Caroline was stillborn—an event that forever altered her mother’s life.

In her first speech to Senate, Keneally told the chamber that whilst Caroline “never drew breath” she “enlarged my understanding of love and loss. She taught me to survive. She made me brave, almost fearless.”

This fearlessness born from the worst imaginable grief, became the impetus for Keneally to fight tooth and nail to ensure that parents following after her, subject to the same consuming heartbreak, were afforded more options and more support.

Throughout her entire time in government, and particularly in her capacity as a Federal Senator, Keneally has held strong to this resolve. A large part of that, and something she has lobbied for years, is having more companies standardise paid parental leave for those who have lost a child, bringing it into line with the time afforded to parents of live births.

Speaking to me on this week’s Women’s Agenda podcast, Keneally shares more about the Private Senator’s Bill she will soon introduce to the chamber to start the formal process of pushing to have policy legislated.

While the Commonwealth already supplies equal paid parental leave to parents of stillborn babies in the public sector,  “the private sector is very hit and miss”, says Keneally.

“Many of these companies don’t explicitly acknowledge parents of stillborn babies as parents in their paid parental leave schemes, and so you often get to this circumstance where a mid-level manager is just making a decision, and you can get different outcomes for different people at different companies,” without any set framework in place, she says.

It’s such a fundamental, important decision because parents of stillborn babies are parents, and they have to not only, as mothers, recover physically from giving birth, but they have to recover from the shock, the trauma and the grief. And they have parenting responsibilities—they have to organise things like autopsies and funerals.”

“It would be so much better if they had clear, unambiguous access to paid parental leave.”

In 2018, the Senate Select Committee on Stillbirth Research and Education heard evidence from parents of stillborn babies about the difficulties and inconsistencies experienced in seeking access to paid parental leave from their employers.

In one case, the Committee heard from a mother who was forced to return to work just 11 days after her baby’s stillbirth—a common experience notes Keneally.

“Unfortunately, it is common. Until very recently almost no private sector employers would have explicitly acknowledged stillbirth in their paid parental leave schemes,” she says.

But Keneally doesn’t believe this is symptomatic of corporate callousness, but rather a lack of understanding.  

“This isn’t a case of wanting to be mean, or wanting to save money, it’s actually just a misunderstanding of what stillbirth is,” she says. “And I put that down to the fact that we have treated stillbirth as a private tragedy. We haven’t treated it as a public health problem, we haven’t treated it as an economic challenge to our country, but yet there are six stillborn babies every day in Australia.”

But all parents need support, and parents of stillborn babies in many ways require more.

While Keneally was studying not working at the time of Caroline’s death, her husband, Ben, was forced to return to work quickly following the funeral. Left at home with her toddler son and still enduring the considerable physical and emotional toll of what had just happened, Keneally said the period was “incredibly challenging”.

“I was deprived of Ben during the day. At a time when I could barely get out of bed in the morning, he was having to get into his suit and go to work. I was struggling even to get showered, and yet here we had this 18-month-old, demanding, understandably, that his mother get up and look after him.”

“It was just incredibly challenging during that time, and it would have been great if he could have taken a few weeks off—I think it would have been great for him and I think it would have been great for me.”

While Private Members Bills historically, don’t have a high rate of passing into legislation, Keneally is confident that she has sway on her side.

“This bill reflects a bipartisan recommendation of the Senate Select Committee. In fact, it was the first recommendation of the Senate Select Committee that the Fair Work Act be amended to give unambiguous, clear rights to parents of stillborn babies who work in the private sector,” she says.

She notes that the Morrison government had accepted all the recommendations of that committee in 2018.

“I think on this one, I don’t think this needs to be a political football. I’m not trying to whack the government here; I’m actually trying to get something done,” she tells me.

“If the government were to turn around tomorrow and introduce their own bill to do this, something their own senators have already backed and endorsed, something they’ve already said they accept, then I’d be happy to withdraw mine and have theirs pass. I’m really about the outcome here.”

“Let’s put the marker down, let’s draw the line in the sand, let’s say this is what needs to happen and… I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful the government will come to the party.”

Kristina Keneally spoke me on the Women’s Agenda Podcast this week. Available to stream or download now.

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