updated 8/29/2007 3:00:46 PM ET 2007-08-29T19:00:46

A pregnant woman miscarried in western Japan on Wednesday after nine hospitals refused to admit her and the ambulance transporting her crashed on its way to a tenth, news reports said.

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The incident triggered an immediate outcry in Japan, where the government has promised to improve medical care for pregnant women as it struggles to reverse a declining birth rate.

The 38-year-old woman, who was in the sixth month of her pregnancy, was being driven to a hospital near the western city of Osaka early Wednesday after she suffered stomach cramps and bleeding, according to Kyodo News agency and other local media.

Nine hospitals closer to her home in Nara prefecture, more than 25 miles away, had refused to admit her, saying they were full, the reports said.

Her water broke two hours into her journey. Ten minutes later, the ambulance collided with a minivan.

She was transferred to another ambulance and reached the Osaka hospital a full three hours after she contacted emergency services, according to Kyodo. But her baby was pronounced dead on arrival, the reports said.

“This is a very grave incident,” Heath Minister Yoichi Masuzoe told public broadcaster NHK late Wednesday. “The Health Ministry will conduct a thorough investigation,” Masuzoe said.

Police were quoted as saying they are not sure the accident caused the woman’s miscarriage. The woman and ambulance staff were not injured in the accident.

In a similar incident last year, a pregnant woman died in Nara after being refused admission by about 20 hospitals that said they were full.

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