Last week, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett signed a bill into law which will allow Pennsylvania parents who deliver stillborn babies to receive a birth certificate for their child. This makes Pennsylvania the 28th state to allow birth certificates for stillbirths, and it is largely because of campaigning by people like Heidi Kauffmann, whose son, Kail, was born dead three weeks before his due date. Instead of receiving a birth certificate after the tragedy, the Kauffmanns were given a death certificate.
“People think it’s only a piece of paper, but it was kind of like saying he never happened,” Kauffman said. Her sentiments are echoed by many other parents whose children were born dead, like Sari Edber, a woman who was interviewed back in 2007 for a piece in the New York Times.
“The experience of giving birth and death at the exact same time is something you don’t understand unless you’ve gone through it,” Edber said. “The day before I was released from the hospital, the doctor came in with the paperwork for a fetal death certificate, and said, ‘I’m sorry, but this is the only document you’ll receive.’ In my heart, it didn’t make sense. I was in labor. I pushed, I had stitches, my breast milk came in, just like any other mother. And we deserved more than a death certificate.”
For grieving parents, the certificate can provide a needed sense of closure after a horrifying and often unexpected ordeal. But Pennsylvania’s legislation also makes pro-choice advocates nervous, and rightfully so. Although the law does not claim to answer an existential question, but rather to provide an absent piece of documentation (the parents can’t apply for a birth certificate, strictly speaking, only a “certificate of birth resulting in death”), the line between stillbirth and abortion is dangerously muddy. As Irin Carmon writes on Jezebel, “vague language in a stillbirth birth certificate bill could be a slippery slope” to the fetal personhood bills that pro-life advocates have been trying to pass in Colorado.
More complicated still, abortion is legal in Pennsylvania until 24 weeks, but a stillbirth is defined as the death of a fetus anytime after the 20th week. In Pennsylvania, however, the certificates are optional, which is a promising sign.
In the end, it seems important to allow grieving parents a piece of documentation that can give them a needed sense of closure. The certificates can also serve as a monument to the child’s existence, however brief. But legislators should make sure that these laws are written carefully so that a law designed to help mourners through a tragedy does not result in restrictions on another woman’s right to choose.
Photo from o5com via flickr.
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