Fetal death has been defined by the World Health Organization as death before complete expulsion or extraction from its mother of a product of conception, irrespective of the duration of pregnancy. Certain causes of fetal death, including syphilis, Rh isoimmunization, toxemia, and diabetes, have shown significant declines over the past several decades. However, many fetal losses continue to occur from intrauterine infections, lethal malformations, fetal growth retardation, and abruptio placentae. Fetal death with no identifiable specific cause is another consideration when dealing with these cases. Other risk factors can include maternal, sociodemographic, and medical care factors.
The authors reviewed all forensic cases referred for autopsy to the Forensic Section of the Medical University of South Carolina, Medical Examiners’ Office over the 10-year period 1990–1999. All cases listed as fetal death or stillbirth were included. The 42 cases were analyzed as to fetus’ gestational age, sex, race, weight, location of delivery, history of prenatal care, maternal drug use, chromosomal abnormalities, cause and manner of death, and autopsy findings. The black:white ratio was approximately 2:1, and the male:female ratio was virtually 1:1. Most fetuses were older than 20 weeks’ gestational age, with one third between 20 and 29 weeks. The majority were externally normal aside from maceration. Only 7.5% had congenital anomalies. Twenty-one of 38 placentas were grossly and microscopically normal. Of cases with toxicologic analysis, 21% were positive for drugs, and 17% were positive for cocaine/benzoylecgonine. The manner of death was classified as natural (28), accident (2), and undetermined (12). Few studies have reported the specific causes of fetal death, and the lack of uniformity in data collection and classification of causes of fetal death has made comparisons difficult. The authors present this retrospective study to better determine the factors leading to fetal demise in the hope of assisting death investigators in this challenging arena.