GAETANO AND KATE CHETTA of Visitation parish in Trooper, Pa., hold their daughter, Lily Anne, in 2013. She was stillborn at 22 weeks. (CNS photo/courtesy Now I Lay me Down to Sleep)
GAETANO AND KATE CHETTA of Visitation parish in Trooper, Pa., hold their daughter, Lily Anne, in 2013. She was stillborn at 22 weeks. (CNS photo/courtesy Now I Lay me Down to Sleep)

When parents lose a child to miscarriage, says labor and delivery nurse Sharon Hoffman, “you can never take away their pain.”

But it brings back some level of control, she says, when they can at least bury their child.

Right now, in New York State, a child miscarried before 20 weeks’ gestation is often considered simply “products of conception,” disposed of by the hospital without notifying the parents that they can access hospital records and obtain their child’s remains to bury, cremate or otherwise respectfully dispose of.

In contrast, Mrs. Hoffman described her experience with parents who suffer a miscarriage after 20 weeks: They’re allowed to see and, if they wish, to hold, wash and dress their lost child; to have photos taken; and to have the child’s remains released to a funeral home for burial or cremation. Some families choose to have a funeral service, as well.

Bill under consideration

The New York State Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the state’s bishops, is trying to help families who have had early miscarriages to grieve and heal. A proposed law (A.10013/S.7863) drafted by the Catholic Conference would make it mandatory, when a miscarriage occurs before 20 weeks, for hospitals to let parents know that they can get a fetal death report, which would enable them to then get a burial permit and obtain their child’s remains.

Many Catholic hospitals in New York State have a policy to do this already. St. Peter’s in Albany, for example, has a communal plot where the remains of miscarried infants can be buried.

But, for infants miscarried before 20 weeks, said Kathleen Gallagher of the Catholic Conference, “the law is silent.” Hospitals can make their own policies, and parents often don’t even know what their rights are. One bereavement coordinator described it to Mrs. Gallagher as “horrifying that I can’t tell families that they can bury their child.”

Mrs. Hoffman, who attends Our Lady of Fatima parish in Delanson, told The Evangelist that she’s also heard hospital officials compare the remains of a child miscarried before 20 weeks to an appendix that’s been removed or a leg that’s been amputated.

“It’s not like your leg,” she said emotionally. “It’s your future. It’s a part of you.”

Not all parents want to see a child miscarried that early, she added, “but that doesn’t mean they don’t have the right to bury it” if they choose.

Support strengthening

The bill that would change New York State law on the matter is gaining support in the State Legislature, with Sens. James Tedisco, George Amedore and Kathleen Marchione already backing it in one house and Assembly members Angelo Santabarbara, Mary Beth Walsh, Marcos Crespo, Michael Fitzpatrick and Michael Cusick in the other.

Currently, it’s sitting in the health committee in each house. “We hope it will advance in the State Legislature once we have a good number of co-sponsors,” said Mrs. Gallagher, who is director of pro-life activities for the Catholic Conference and one of the people who helped draft the legislation.

Advocates are clear in telling legislators that the bill has nothing to do with elective abortions. It is specifically about spontaneous abortions, commonly called miscarriages. In addition, it does not put any financial responsibility on the state; parents who wished to bury their miscarried child would bear the cost.

Ironically, Mrs. Gallagher noted, this issue has been discussed among pro-life advocates state­wide for years — but, because New York tends to be “so hostile to pro-life priorities,” lobbyists like her are forced to spend most of their time “fighting the bad stuff,” like a recent proposal to legalize assisted suicide in the state.

Families’ experience

Being contacted by two nurses last year who serve families dealing with early miscarriages galvanized the pro-life community to push for a new law. Having drafted the bill, the Catholic Conference has since been collecting testimonials from families who have experienced such a loss and sharing those thoughts with state lawmakers.

One of the testimonials came from Jacob and Katherine Vander Veen of Altamont. They lost their son, Isaac, at 21 weeks’ gestation.

“Even though we didn’t know him long, we knew him intimately,” they wrote. “We heard his heartbeat, felt his movements in the womb, talked to him and cherished him daily....He was a real person in every sense.”

Speaking with The Evangelist, Mrs. Vander Veen recalled the terrible day when she miscarried. It happened at home, so the couple had to bring Isaac’s remains with them to the hospital.

“I remember my husband and I wondering, ‘What on earth are we going to do if we can’t bury him?’ I’ve known other people who have miscarried and you never hear what they did,” she said. “Granted, the baby was very small, but you could see he was fully formed.”

Please do this

The Vander Veens were relieved to learn that they could claim Isaac’s remains for burial. But it disturbed them to hear that, if the miscarriage had occurred earlier, they likely would not have had that comfort.

“What if we were at 19 weeks? Would they have denied us: ‘He doesn’t meet our guidelines’ or something like that?” Mrs. Vander Veen said. “It’s a human being. He deserves the right of a decent burial.”

The couple had a funeral service for Isaac at their church, Duanes­burg Reformed Presbyterian, and buried him in the family plot in the church cemetery. In their testimonial, they called it “a crucial part of our healing process.

“We cannot imagine the incredible heartache (on top of so much pain already) that other families must go through when they are denied this right of burial just because a miscarried child was ‘too young’ in the womb,” they added.

Some of the state lawmakers contacted to seek support for the bill have responded with surprise that New York doesn’t already have such a law. Mrs. Hoffman remarked that, “if somebody wants to take on the expense of burying their child, why does it matter to the state?”

In her work as a labor and delivery nurse, she said, the parents she has met who lost a child to an early miscarriage have been “disheartened and upset” about hospital policies that deny them the right to honor the child’s life as they see fit.

“They felt this was a decision they should be making,” Mrs. Hoffman said, not “an outside entity telling them what they should do.”

(To learn more, see www.nyscatholic.org or contact the New York State Catholic Conference at 518-434-6195.)