Up Front and Personal

Parents Have the Right to Bury Fetal Remains

By Kathleen M. Gallagher

I lost my first pregnancy to miscarriage in the late 1980s. The memory is hazy, clouded by the roller coaster of emotions and hormonal changes that a woman experiences when she loses a baby. I remember Joe and I watching the ultrasound machine anxiously and excitedly, waiting for the heartbeat that never came. I remember the doctor taking over from the technician and delivering the tragic news. And I remember crying.

But that’s all. I don’t remember asking if my baby was a boy or girl. I don’t remember telling the awful news to family members. And I don’t remember asking what happened to my baby’s remains. Only months later did I learn that the hospital where I lost my baby respectfully buried him in a communal plot in a Catholic cemetery. That knowledge comforted me, allowed me to mourn, and gave my heart some peace.

Not all families are so fortunate. Due to a poorly crafted law, New York State only requires a burial permit and proper disposition for the remains of fetal deaths occurring at 20 weeks gestation or greater. As a result, not all women who miscarry are told they may obtain a permit and respectfully bury or cremate their baby’s remains. Worse yet, if a family does not claim their child’s remains, it is often disposed of as “medical waste” under our laws.

Our current law is being wrongly interpreted by some hospitals to mean that a burial permit under 20 weeks is prohibited. It is not. I recently met with several nurses of a hospital in upstate New York who tell me that their facility no longer allows them to tell parents of their right to access the permit and plan a funeral for their deceased child under 20 weeks. Denying parents the opportunity to say good-bye is extremely harmful, and prevents proper grieving and healing from taking place.

Thankfully, a new bill has been introduced in the state legislature that would correct this wrong. Senate bill 7863/Assembly bill 10013 would require that all hospitals notify all moms who miscarry that they have the right to access the fetal death report and obtain a burial permit if they so choose. This measure deserves the support of all of our state representatives.

Many hospitals, including Catholic ones, have adopted internal policies whereby they inform parents of their right to direct the disposition of their child’s remains. And there are places we can go to mourn. For example, the Shrine of the Holy Innocents Chapel, on the property of St. Mary of the Snow Church in Saugerties, N.Y., is open 24 hours a day, every day of the week. Visitors are welcome any time to pray for their babies, unborn or born, who have gone home to God.

Losing a child is one of the most heartbreaking events a parent can endure. Parents like me who lose a child early in pregnancy know their child’s life, no matter how brief, was made in the image and likeness of God, and deserves to be respected and honored.

Gallagher is the director of pro-life activities for the New York State Catholic Conference.

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