Lambda Legal has filed a lawsuit against the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH) on behalf of a married lesbian couple after one of their names was purposefully erased from the death certificate of their stillborn baby.
The couple, Jenny and Jessica Buntemeyer, met in 2008 and fell in love while both serving in Iraq. They married in Iowa in 2010. After discussing having a child, Jessica became pregnant via in vitro fertilization and an anonymous sperm donor. However, on October 21, 2011, they faced the devastating reality of giving birth to a stillborn baby after discovering that the umbilical cord had wound around the little boy’s neck.
In due course the matter of the fetal death certificate arose and Jessica filled out the boxes for “mother” while Jenny filled out the boxes marked “father” because these are the only options for a second parent even though same-sex marriage has been legal in Iowa since 2009.
On January 12, 2012, the IDPH issued the couple a death certificate. To their disbelief they found Jenny’s name and identifying information had been erased.
The department has previously stated its belief that state law only allows for the biological mother and father to be registered on birth certificates and it is understood that this is the reason behind Jenny’s information being deleted.
However, Lambda Legal points out that just prior to this a Polk Country trial court decided the presumed parenthood given to married straight couples is also conferred to married same-sex couples.
Des Moines couple Melissa Gartner, 41, and Heather Gartner, 40, sued when the Iowa Department of Public Health refused to list both their names on the birth certificate of their daughter, now 2 years old.
Polk County District Judge Eliza Ovrom issued a narrow ruling in the couple’s favor, avoiding the question of whether there was a constitutional right for the same-sex couple to have their names on the birth certificate. Instead, Judge Ovrom found the department failed to properly interpret the Supreme Court’s 2009 ruling that same-sex couples should have full access to state-sanctioned marriage rights including the standard presumed parenthood. The ruling stated that birth certificates must be interpreted in a gender neutral way.
The IDPH was ordered to issue a new birth certificate to the couple, but the department is appealing this ruling.
The new Buntemeyers case, Buntemeyer v. Iowa Department of Public Health, will no doubt traverse similar territory.
“This is an egregious display of insensitivity and disregard for Iowa law, which states that the spousal presumption of parentage applies to children born to same-sex spouses in the same manner it applies to children of different-sex spouses,” said Camilla Taylor, National Marriage Project Director for Lambda Legal. “A different-sex married couple grieving a similar loss would receive a two-parent death certificate with no questions asked. Death certificates and other vital records like birth certificates document legal parentage, and not biology. To white out a mother’s name from her stillborn baby’s death certificate is cruel to a family that is already devastated.”
“After the loss of our son, Jenny and I were just trying to process our grief and get through it together,” said Jessica Buntemeyer. “To erase Jenny’s name from the death certificate was like trying to erase all the love, commitment and work we had both put into planning a family. We were in complete shock.”
You can view the death certificate that originated from the funeral home with Jenny’s name here.
You can then read the death certificate provided by the Iowa Department of Public Health with Jenny’s name and details erased here.
The IDPH has yet to comment on the lawsuit.
Image taken from Lambda Legal documents in the public domain no infringement intended.