One for my Baby: Should Stillborn Infants be issued Birth Certificates?

Scrolling through the news the other morning, I chanced upon this article about an Australian couple seeking a birth certificate for their stillborn son delivered at five months. Since my research—more specifically my dissertation—considers in part the ways we define motherhood and the personal, political, and cultural constructions of maternal narratives, I was naturally intrigued by the ensuing debate.

According to the article, Tarlia Bartsch was five-months pregnant when her baby died in utero. After eight hours of induced labor, Tarlia and her husband, who named their stillborn son Jayden, insisted that they wanted a birth certificate issued because, as Tarlia put it, “without a birth certificate, he didn’t exist.”

I find this issue so fraught with technicalities that it makes my head spin, and I’m not entirely sure where I stand. I also feel compelled to preface any further remarks with the statement that I am not a mother, and I cannot begin to fathom the depth of the Bartsch’s’ loss, particularly the futile eight hours of induced labor to “give birth” to their lifeless son. From an emotional perspective, Tarlia’s desire to reaffirm her son’s existence is the natural reaction of a grief-stricken mother. Objectively, however, the claim that “without a birth certificate, [Jayden] didn’t exist” is highly problematic, not least because according to law, any stillborn delivery prior to twenty weeks is regarded as a miscarriage. Jayden had been nineteen weeks in utero when his heart stopped. This is such a marginal difference that it naturally gives rise to hair-splitting technicalities, but as far as his parents are concerned, Jayden did exist, and they want confirmation of that.

This begs the question, however, do they *need* confirmation? For one thing, Tarlia is already a mother—she has another son with whom to share her maternal love. (I don’t mean to suggest that in her grief and her desire to keep Jayden alive, that she is showing parental neglect toward her other son, nor am I implying that because she has a responsibility to this son, that she has no right to mourn the loss of her miscarried child). What intrigues me is the need to make Jayden’s existence “official” in the legal sense. Having carried and ultimately delivered a stillborn child, Tarlia has nothing and no one to legitimate her experience as an expectant mother. From an academic standpoint, her anxiety about Jayden’s nonexistence seems less about her son and more about reaffirming her maternity. To whom does she need to prove that she was pregnant? Who is doubting that she underwent the physical and emotional transformation of carrying a child? If Jayden’s spirit was so alive to her, if he lives in her heart as he once did in her womb, then that alone makes her as much a mother and him as much her son as if he’d been born healthy—at least, in my opinion.

Then, of course, we come to the problem of legality; if Jayden is going to be issued a birth certificate to prove that he lived, he also would, in all technicality, need to be issued a death certificate to prove that he died. NO where does the article address the additional consideration of this point.

Finally, and not surprisingly, there’s the fact that pro-life and abortion activists have appropriated this issue to service their own political agendas. In short, altering the law to issue birth certificates to stillborn infants who die in utero calls for a reexamination of the definition of the moment at which life begins. This is fertile ground for the pro-life and pro-choice activists—ground that they’ve been tearing up for decades. I’m not interested here in expanding in detail on my own views about the pro-life or pro-choice debate because, quite frankly, there is too much polarity attached to these labels. It seems, however, that such a change in the law concerning the issuing of birth certificates necessitates standardizing the definition of life—acknowledging that it does, in fact, begin at the moment of conception. Tarlia and her husband obviously believe as much; the naming ritual itself gives their stillborn son something of the identity he might have forged for himself had he lived a full and healthy life.

Though not a mother, I cannot deny that every expectant mother’s report of that first kick bears witness to the budding life that is forming unseen inside her. I cannot disagree with Tarlia in believing that her son lived—in some form. What I remain uncertain about is whether or not there is justification for the legal legitimation of his existence beyond that of assuaging their grief. (And perhaps, some might argue, that is reason enough). Whether this debate simply serves to add wood to the ongoing flame wars between the pro-life and pro-choice extremists, or if it challenges us to reevaluate what we as a society hold to be true about the way we define life, I hope that these parents can find peace in the memory of Jayden and comfort in their remaining son.

Question: should stillborn infants like Jayden be issued birth certificates?

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12 Comments »

  1. No. Birth Certificates are meant to be used as a legal proof of citizenship and identity to acquire passports, social security numbers, government benefits, etc. Terrorists and Identity thieves are already using the birth records of infants who die to perpetrate crimes. We don’t need to make it any easier for them.

    Moral arguments aside, there is no reason to issue Birth Certificates to the unborn IMO.

    • poetprodigy7 said

      I tend to think that this request probably won’t be upheld–for all the reasons you mentioned and more–but it’s interesting to see just how many people have seized on the issue for their own agendas within the current debates over reproductive rights etc.

  2. I had never thought about the terrorist issue your previous commenter mentioned, and it’s an even stronger arguement against what this mother wants to do.
    I also agree that it is kind of goofy to issue a birth certificate to the stillborn or miscarried baby. What’s the point? The baby died in utero and was delivered deceased. If the baby had lived a day, an hour, a few minutes, yes, naturally the mother should have her son’s birth and death certificates, but not when the delivery resulted in a stillborn.
    I am a mother, and I’d be distraught beyond all words if this had happened to me, but it also never would have even crossed my mind to think there should be a birth certificate.
    IMO, you don’t need a governmental piece of paper to know in your heart that a child who was miscarried or stillborn exists.

    • poetprodigy7 said

      Which is precisely my point–I think this is more about her own way of defining her motherhood with respect to the child than anything else.

    • I just last October lost my daughter. She died during delivery (after her head was delivered) I was 40 weeks and 4 days. I do not like the fact that they will not give me a birth certificate. Nor will they give me a death certificate. Never would I have thought I would want one until experiencing this loss myself. Although I find my situation a little different. I was full term and went into labor on my own. Everything was fine even when her head was delievered, Her shoulder became stuck under my pelvic bone (shoulder dystocia) When she was delivered fully she was no longer breathing and did not have a heart rate anymore. They tried to revive her from 5:39 a.m. til 6:02 a.m. My question is why cant I have one…. why is she considered stillborn? If this were the case they wouldnt have tried to revive her…. But then if they grant me one, why wont they give this woman one…. Its not that she needs to be reassured that her baby existed, she knows he did… It’s just that it seems like noone else wants to acknowledge that the baby exsisted. My daughter was 9lbs 11.3 oz and 23 1/4 inches long and they still consider her a fetus on her death record (Certificate of Fetal Death) Does this make sense to you?

      • poetprodigy7 said

        If does make sense. I don’t think is this ever an easy question to answer.

        Sent from my iPhone

  3. I am terribly sad for this couple. Hope they heal and focus on life ahead of them.I know how hard it is
    People shouldn’t be confusing legal issues, legal documents, and laws with philosophies, religion, and views of life.
    The child never drew breath into the lungs even for a moment – no heart beat outside the mother – no brain activity after delivery. The child existed, but did not live.
    Issuing a birth certificate would in inaccurate and complicate legal issues. Identity theft is also a real concern.
    Once again, this is very very sad. I agree with Shannon’s last statement.

    • poetprodigy7 said

      I think you’ve actually hit it–the difference between “existing” and “living” in a technical/medical sense versus a more philosophical or spiritual sense. That distinction can be challenging to unpack sometimes.

  4. I’m inclined to say no, for the reasons you and others have brought up. Giving the baby legal personhood is different (maybe subtly, but still different) than an acknowledgement that the child existed. I’ve known of parents in similar situations, and they’ve found ways to mark the baby’s existence and effect on their lives, even while in the grips of very intense grief. Which I guess is part of the issue – what helps some parents comes to terms with the loss may not help other parents.

    But issuing a birth certificate raises too many issues.

  5. Jen said

    I just delivered my child via csection at 34 weeks due to a cord accident my son was stillborn. Thankfully my doctors and priest had an understanding of the pain and grief my husband and I were experiencing. My son was 6lbs 3oz I was able to hold my son as he was baptized … I was able to kiss him… Look at how beautiful and perfect he was and say goodbye. My son may not be alive but he existed. He was protected by me he was with me on the beach he heard me read him stories and play him music. So if a piece of paper recording his birth helps me or any other family feel even a little better why should there be a debate. In NY you can fill out a firm and have your child’s birth recorded even if it is a stillbirth. My son may not have existed to you but he did to me my husband his brother sister and our families and that piece of paper brings me a liitle peace as it dies when I go to the cemetery where I buried my son on the worst day of my life.

  6. Sandra said

    I lost my son at 20 weeks and I got a birth certificate. Unless someone has been through a loss like this I don’t think their opinion really matters. To me it is something very meaningful to have for my son that didn’t make it, to go along with the picture, hand prints, foor prints, ect. I also was able to have him baptized which was great! I live in MA and this happen 6 years ago, so i’m not sure if they still issue them, but i’m VERY happy I was able to get one and would pay any amount of money to have it.

    • poetprodigy7 said

      I think what’s become increasingly apparent in the longstanding conversation that this post sparked is that people who’ve experienced such a loss find comfort in the certificate. When I wrote this, I was on the fence about the issue, not being a parent myself, but I don’t know that it’s fair to claim that people who aren’t parents can’t express a valuable intelligent opinion on the matter given enough reflection.

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