Parents of Stillborn Babies Push for Recognition

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Parents in a number of states around the nation are fighting for what they see as recognition of their stillborn babies. They want the state to issue birth certificates for their babies instead of fetal death certificates. A few states have complied.


When a woman has a stillbirth, in most cases she is not given a birth certificate. She's given a death certificate. Now a growing movement of parents is fighting that policy and they've already been successful in 14 states.

But as Chana Joffe-Walt reports from Seattle, abortion rights advocates worry that stillbirth legislation could be misused.

CHANA JOFFE-WALT: First look around and everything in Liz Allen's home seems super suburban normal. She's got the wall-to-wall carpets, the matching furniture.

Ms. LIZ ALLEN: Okay, this is our family room and this is where we keep all Janelle's stuff that's up on the mantle.

JOFFE-WALT: Janelle was Liz's first pregnancy.

Ms. ALLEN: That's the teddy bear we got made of her clothes.

JOFFE-WALT: There's a big, Janelle's inked foot prints, her hospital bracelet and a framed picture. Sounds like your typical scrapbooking soccer mom's baby shrine, right? But it gets tragic here. Janelle is dead. Eight months into Liz's pregnancy, the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck and Janelle stopped breathing.

Ms. ALLEN: This is her urn, and it's little, I mean. And it's probably not full, either.

JOFFE-WALT: This stuff is all up in the family room. Psychologist Leslie Butterfield treats women with reproductive problems and says you see this kind of thing all the time in stillbirth homes.

Ms. LESLIE BUTTERFIELD (Psychologist): And I would say that that's probably a response to feeling that that baby didn't get grieved enough by other people.

JOFFE-WALT: Dr. Butterfield says think about the junk you save when a parent dies just because it was theirs. Liz was just doing her own version of after-death stuff hoarding.

In the beginning, Liz found Janelle's death certificate. She didn't want to post that on the wall, so she called the hospital to find out when she'd get Janelle's birth certificate.

Ms. ALLEN: And they said well, your daughter was never born. And I said what do you mean she was never born? I went through 24 hours of labor. And she goes no, well, you gave birth to her, but she was never born. And I was like what?

JOFFE-WALT: Liz felt really alone until she turned, well, where a lot of lonely people turn, the Internet. That's when she found the movement of moms fighting for Missing Angels Bills, bills that would grant birth certificates to their stillborn babies. But why a birth certificate, that thing most parents keep stuffed in a dusty drawer?

Ms. ALLEN: When I was holding her in my arms, lifeless, her eyes weren't closed. That's not the way I want to remember my daughter. You know. I would have liked to have her hand squeeze around my hand. The first day of school, prom, seeing her get married.

She'll never get those opportunities. I don't get to see my daughter do that, so I want to get whatever I can, you know.

Dr. KENNETH KELNER (OBGYN): One of the key things about grieving is that it's very difficult to grieve for nebulous things. It's much easier to grieve for concrete losses.

JOFFE-WALT: That's Dr. Kenneth Kelner, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Florida. He worked on a 12-year interdisciplinary study of stillbirth parents. The parents were given choices like, do you want to see the stillbirth? Do you want footprints? Pictures? The parents overwhelmingly said yes.

Dr. Kelner says these findings are the groundwork for how we treat parents today. He says the problem is stillbirth parents wonder what did I lose.

Dr. KELNER: The solution to that problem was to do whatever we could to have the parents understand that they had a baby and the baby died. That's where things like a lock of hair, a blanket, all these kinds of things gave them something concrete to grieve for.

JOFFE-WALT: A birth certificate can be part of that healing process for some parents, he says. Although it can't resolve their grief. Liz Allen believes a birth certificate would help remind her of Janelle's life.

Still, Missing Angels bills have faced some opposition from abortion rights advocates. But you could erase that image of fiery pro-choicers here. Nobody's exactly eager to be on the wrong side of grieving mothers.

But Kim Gandy with the National Organization for Women says it's important that somebody watch we're not talking about fetuses as people here. She worries the stillbirth legislation could be misused.

Ms. KIM GANDY (National Organization for Women): There might be a movement to get birth certificates for abortions, for example, because that's part of the effort from anti-abortion forces to identify fetuses as persons under the Constitution, which means that abortion would be murder in all 50 states without regard to Roe.

JOFFE-WALT: Liz Allen says she feels like she's been thrown into a raging debate she wants nothing to do with.

Ms. ALLEN: I just want a birth certificate for my daughter.

JOFFE-WALT: And she's willing to fight hard for it. She hopes to get a Missing Angels Bill passed in Washington state this year.

For NPR News, I'm Chana Joffe-Walt.

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