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Utah Legislature Wrangles Over Legal Definition Of ‘Stillbirth’

baby reaching for father's fingerNothing is more heart-wrenching than the thought of losing a baby. Whether it happens at full-term or just a few months in, the sorrow is deep for the families involved and the grieving process is long. Matters are complicated by the fact that there is no national standard for what constitutes a “life” worthy of state recognition.

Stillbirth definitions add to the heartache

“You… think about them every day,” Missy Katsanevas told The Deseret News after losing her firstborn son just shy of 20 weeks. She added that getting a certificate and having the chance to bury the remains “is huge.” She started a nonprofit group called “Utah Share” to provide infant loss support. She added that a burial “gives you a market at the cemetery, a place to go and to visit,” which is an important part of the healing process for some parents.

The Weeks family – who suffered two stillbirths at 18.5 and 17.5 weeks – says they feel the law took away the babies’ freedom to be recognized as “real human beings and therefore worthy without prejudice of a certificate of still birth.” Grandfather David Weeks filed an emotional appeal with the Utah Department of Health’s Office of Vital Statistics, stating, “Here we have a grieving mother who knows, firsthand, what it feels like to be carrying valued God-given life within her womb, and a father, where together they feel the live fetus movements, hear the clearly defined heart beats and visually see the baby move via ultrasound.”

Unless declared a stillbirth, hospitals discard the remains of a pregnancy along with all other biological tissue, including organs, skin, bones, and blood. Even though a proper burial incurs additional costs for the family, many parents are fighting for the chance to make the decision themselves.

State definitions vary

Some states consider “all products of human conception” to be worthy of burial and certification, including:

  • Arkansas
  • Colorado
  • Georgia
  • Hawaii
  • New York
  • Rhode Island
  • Virginia

States like California, Texas, and Florida record births after 20 weeks of gestation. Still other states like Arizona and Massachusetts require a birth weight of 350 grams or more before classifying fetal death. Utah joins Pennsylvania with its new 16-week cutoff.

“Merely changing our standard to 16 weeks seemed to be more straightforward and less burdensome than developing a system requiring that a determination be made in each case as to whether to issue a certificate,” clarified Rep. Jim Nielson, when the law was changed in 2013.

The discussion is not over yet

The new definition in the Utah law does nothing for parents of miscarriages prior to 16 weeks, so one could argue they merely delayed the argument until another family petitions legislators to take another look at the unintended consequences of their legal definitions. Lawmakers say they worried about the burden the law may place on hospitals to find a way to legally dispose of the remains when parents or funeral homes could not bear the cost.

“They had perfect feet, toes, even toenails. There was hair on their heads when they were born. And 24 hours prior to that, there was a beating heart,” said David Weeks. “We held those angel babies in our arms. We long for them. The official assurance that they had a life is tender.

  1. Deseret News - Lawmakers to rehash Utah's stillbirth law due to unintended consequence

  2. CDC – Live Births, Fetal Deaths & Induced Terminations of Pregnancy: State Definitions and Reporting Requirements

  3. March of Dimes – Stillbirth