“But what do you do with the baby bodies that no one comes to claim?”
That was a question I asked a local pathologist today. I knew what his response would be and yet it still stung when I heard the answer come out of his mouth.
“Well, they get thrown away with all the other medical waste.” Medical waste. The definition is quite broad. Medical waste is healthcare waste that may be contaminated by blood, body fluids or other potentially infectious materials. Basically, anything that needs to go in a biohazard waste bin. It includes random body parts and tissues removed during surgeries, or procedure, band-aids, syringes, fabrics and dressings used to clean up bodily fluids and many other kinds of unsavory things.
Yes, that’s where many babies that died in the womb end up after a doctor has removed them.
Today, I sat in a legislative committee hearing for a Utah bill that would change the way fetal remains are handled by hospitals and clinics. One great aspect of the bill is that it would ensure that all women who undergo the removal of their unborn baby from their womb would be adequately informed that they have the option to claim the baby’s remains and have them buried or cremated on their own terms. We cannot number the parents that have walked away empty-handed simply because they were not told they had any rights to the body after it was removed from the mother. They have no cemetery plot to visit. No tiny urn on their mantle. Imagine the ongoing pain that could cause for many women?
Simply being given an option when your mind is drowning in sorrow can be so helpful to grieving mothers and fathers who often get so caught up in the whirlwind of managing a miscarriage that they never get a chance to consider the remains of their baby. For many parents, that is a type of closure that they desperately need.
I have heard numerous stories from sobbing women who tell the compounding heartbreak and depression that occurred after their miscarriage or abortion. Years later the pain remains. Losing the baby was the worst part but they also express grief in not knowing where their baby’s body is now and in not taking control of the situation. They have regret in not thinking to ask for the child’s body. Others feel like terrible parents for not even thinking to ask their doctor what would happen with the remains. The grief of miscarriages is compounded by the question of “what if?”.
This is personal to me because I didn’t know this when I had my first miscarriage.
I’ve had two (known) miscarriages. My first was a couple of years after my second baby was born. I was about 8-weeks along when I started bleeding and then I just kept bleeding and bleeding and cramping and cramping but the baby wouldn’t pass. So, my body just kept trying to make it happen. I was in physical and emotional pain. I was hormonal and miserable. So, the doctor suggested I go to the hospital for a simple procedure called a D&C. They would sedate me and clean everything out of my uterus, including the baby. It would basically “reset my menstrual cycle” and I wouldn’t have to wait endlessly for the baby’s body to pass. Since I wanted to get pregnant again rather quickly, I decided to do it. I had never felt I had any reason to feel any guilt about that experience. I knew that the miscarriage was not my fault. Miscarriages happen. Quite often in fact. In about 15-25% of known pregnancies and that stat rises to about 40% when you factor in women who didn’t even know they were pregnant
I had never heard the heartbeat or saw my little bean bouncing around on the ultrasound waving his arms and legs. The pregnancy hadn’t felt very real yet, so my grief was not overwhelming. So, I always felt completely peaceful about how everything happened.
But recently I’ve been pondering on the experience a bit more. You see, unlike some of my friends that have had miscarriages, I didn’t claim my baby’s body from the hospital after the procedure. At the time, I didn’t even know it was an option. It hadn’t even crossed my mind. Now realistically, my husband and I were poor college students at the time. Even if I had known it was an option, financially I doubt we would have been able to afford to cremate or bury our baby on our own. That would not have been a viable option for us at that time in our lives. But I figured that when I left those remains with the hospital, surely, they would know “the right” and most decent thing to do with my baby.
Imagine my shock and anger when I learned that my baby had literally been tossed out with the trash! That was not what I had envisioned when I thought about the right and decent handling of my baby. If I had known that at the time, would I have done more and paid all I had to ensure my baby didn’t become trash? And if I couldn’t afford to claim my baby’s body, how would I move on with my life knowing the financial aspect kept me from giving my baby’s body the respect it deserved.
I have this strange and painful sensation of having not done enough to protect the tiny body of my baby. I couldn’t raise him but surely, I could have protected him better. I know it is irrational and yet the feeling is hard to shake. This information hurts on a deep and primal level. How do you reconcile that as a mother? How do you say, the trash is where my baby belongs? I can only imagine the distress and PTSD that occurs in women who had a very traumatic miscarriage experience and then learn that their baby was thrown out with the trash. As we look to the future, we must consider the practices of the past that have caused unnecessary pain to vulnerable women.
Thus, the part of this bill that is especially merciful to me is that it would allow all women to know that no matter what other circumstances surrounded their baby’s death, their baby was taken care of in the end. This bill would require all hospitals and clinics (yes, even abortion clinics) to respectfully dispose of the remains of all babies that would otherwise be deemed “medical waste”. It would guarantee that all babies left “unclaimed” would be cremated instead of thrown away. It ensures that no women needs to find out the hard way that their tiny, yet very loved baby is lying next to a cancerous tumor or vomit or contents of a bedpan. They can walk away from and look back on their miscarriage experience without having to worry about “what if” they had handled things differently. Knowing these simple things are taking place without having to research them yourself is merciful to anyone who encounters this kind of heartbreak.
Perhaps we can easily understand why this bill is good and cathartic for mothers with miscarried babies. However, one may wonder why abortion providers are grouped into this bill? After all, those participating in an abortion very rarely care about the baby’s body. Many of those undergoing an abortion tout the mantra “my body, my choice”. To them, dignified burial or cremation makes as much sense as doing it for an appendix or tonsils or a tumor. So, how can this bill help women who choose abortion?
Part of our mission at Pro-Life Utah encompasses working with post-abortive women in a healing group setting. Because of this ministry, we know and understand the trauma that many women feel after having chosen abortion.
One aspect of post-abortive grief comes as women learn how their baby’s body was handled post-abortion. While they may not have cared when the abortion was performed, many women later regret their actions and callousness. They see their pregnancy for what it was, a baby. Their baby.
In a day and age where the internet is full of pregnancy websites and fetal development information, the likelihood that a woman will come across this information after her abortion is very substantial. The magnitude of her choice begins to take center stage. Appendixes, tonsils, and tumors don’t hiccup, frown, squint, stretch, open-mouth yawn or suck their thumb. Those things don’t have their own heartbeat, or fingerprints, or DNA or their own functioning organs- all in the early weeks of the first trimester. The belief that the body of the fetus is part of the mother’s body is false and when post-abortive women come to internalize the truth of that, it may feel like a stack of bricks fell on them.
Knowing that their baby was dismembered and tossed away with medical waste or sold for research, or in some cases such as Dr. Gosnell in Pennsylvania and Dr. Klopfer from Indiana, shoved in jars in refrigerators, freezers, homes or the trunk of a car is unbearable. The un regulation of the disposal of fetal bodies can lead to extreme distress for women that would do anything to have their baby back. Having chosen to end the life of their baby, and knowing that the baby ended up with syringes, dirty gloves, and other medical garbage is a hard load to bear. We see their distress, we are there as the grief flows, and the tears come. We are in the position to KNOW that this bill IS important even for women who choose abortion. Their babies are still human beings and deserve to be treated as such. Whether you are wanted does not determine your humanity.
Along the same lines, many more abortions are happening using chemicals instead of surgery. Until this year with the improved informed consent in Utah, women were never even told that after taking the abortion pills, they would likely see the body of their baby expelled from their body at the end of the abortion process. Can you imagine what it is like to think you are aborting tissue and instead seeing a tiny baby? What do these women do with their babies? Is flushing the baby down the toilet the best option we can give them? Or illegally burying it? Or paying out of pocket for a proper burial or cremation? Or even returning the body to the clinic so they can throw it out with the medical waste at the end of the day? Are those really the best options we can give these women after one of the worst experiences of their lives? There is a need for this bill. There is a need to address the humanity of these children and the future distress of the mothers. When the life of a human ends, their body deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. That’s one important way that civilized societies reverence the sanctity of human life. For many post-abortive women, knowing their baby was denied that is heart-wrenching.
There is a lot of misinformation going around with this bill. One of the main talking points being spread is that this bill traumatizes women who are already going through one of the worst experiences of their lives… that women shouldn’t have to think about, let alone make a decision about what happens to the body of their unborn child. That women are not strong enough to handle knowing what happens to their baby. But I urge those who think they are helping women by opposing this bill to consider these questions:
Is it more helpful or hurtful for women to find out later that their babies were thrown away as medical waste?
Is it more helpful or hurtful for women to have the opportunity and option to look at a piece of paper letting them know about their options?
Is it more helpful or hurtful for women to know that if they are not prepared to make a decision at the time of their baby’s removal, the hospital or clinic is legally responsible to guarantee their baby was still disposed of with respect?
Is it more helpful or hurtful for women to know that no matter their financial situation, that they don’t have to feel guilty for letting the hospital or clinic care for the remains because they know they don’t need to worry about how it is done?
Is it more helpful or hurtful for women to have the proper disposal automatically covered by the clinic or hospital instead of having to heft the financial burden herself if she doesn’t want her baby thrown away?
Is it more helpful or hurtful for women if we as a state legislate that no woman (or their babies) will ever again fall through the cracks in being informed that they have options?
I don’t know about you, but all those things would be very helpful for me. And knowing that the future will be better than the past for Utah women in these horrific circumstances somehow eases my own miscarriage pain and guilt.
* You can find more information on SB67 here: http://prolifeutah.com/news/article.cfm?id=555
About the author: Kristy Nielsen is on the Pro-Life Utah board of directors. She describes herself as "A Latter-Day Saint Christian, HAPPY wife and mom to four, pro-life advocate, trying to improve our world every day."