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 prompts us to ask, however, do they needconfirmation? 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?