Leading article: Birth and death

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The Independent Online

There could scarcely be a better advert for choosing a home birth. A study by the Healthcare Commission into maternity care in the NHS has uncovered some startling discrepancies in the service available to pregnant women in English hospitals. In some, a single bed is used for more than one birth every 24 hours. In others, there is also a shortage of basic facilities such as baths, showers and lavatories.

The Government plainly needs to pay more attention to the quality of care available in maternity units. Many women will never be more reliant on the NHS than when they are giving birth. If this experience is not up to scratch, they will ask with ever-more urgency where their taxes are going.

But improving maternity facilities is not just necessary to increase patient comfort. It is a medical imperative too. Giving birth is safer than it has ever been, but a single mistake by medical staff can still be catastrophic. The NHS handed over £259m in obstetric negligence payments in 2005-06. And the negligence bill has been rising in recent years.

According to the Confidential Enquiry into Stillbirths and Deaths in Infancy, substandard care is to blame for two-thirds of deaths during labour. More than half of these lives could be saved with greater supervision and better management.

The message could not be clearer: any official or ministerial complacency about the state of care in our maternity units would be scandalously inappropriate.

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