New law allows birth certificates for stillborns
HARRISBURG - Six years ago, Heidi Kauffman, pregnant with her third child, went to her doctor for a routine exam. She was concerned because her lively baby had turned oddly quiet.
An ultrasound confirmed the worst. Three weeks before Kauffman's due date, her baby was dead.
Doctors induced labor, and the 7-pound boy Kauffman and her husband would name Kail was delivered stillborn. Racked with pain and guilt, Kauffman asked a nurse, "When do I get a birth certificate?"
"You won't," she was told. Instead, the Kauffmans received a death certificate.
"I felt horrible," Kauffman said last week from her home in Port Royal, northwest of Harrisburg. "I felt I'd let Kail down and my family."
That started Kauffman on a crusade that lasted five years. It ended last week when Gov. Corbett signed a bill allowing parents of stillborn infants to receive birth certificates for the first time.
The law does not seek to answer the existential question: If a baby is born dead, did it live?
Rather, it addresses the absence of documentation by allowing parents to apply for a "certificate of birth resulting in stillbirth."
"For Heidi, it was for a sense of closure," said Sen. Jake Corman (R., Centre), who sponsored the bill in each of the last three legislative sessions. "She wanted a birth certificate. She carried it to term and gave birth to a child. There was no way to recognize that."
Corman said his bill cleared the Senate in separate sessions only to get stuck in the House, which until this year was controlled by Democrats.
Rep. Babette Josephs (D., Phila.), chairman of the state Government Committee, did not move the legislation.
Josephs, who supports abortion rights, said she feared a stillbirth law could be used by abortion foes to undermine legal abortion.
But she said that even though the bill's language made her "nervous," she sympathized with those who want a birth certificate and voted for the bill last month.
Politics was the last thing Kauffman had on her mind when she proposed the legislation.
"People think it's only a piece of paper, but it was kind of like saying he never happened," Kauffman said.
"I was pretty mad at the world, but I was appalled that I could hold that perfect beautiful baby, and the state would say he never existed."
Corman said he did not understand why abortion-rights advocates would think his bill was part of an an anti-abortion agenda.
"There is no way this certification could be latched onto by a judge to determine when life begins," said Corman. "It has no impact on current abortion law."
With Corbett's signature, Pennsylvania joins more than two dozen states with similar laws.
An estimated 30,000 stillbirths occur each year across the nation, including 1,469 in 2009 in Pennsylvania. The causes are often unknown.
A spokeswoman said Corbett signed the bill because it was important to help parents going through a "difficult and tragic loss."
"Having a certificate is something that many grieving parents who have lived through stillbirth feel is important because it recognizes the life of their child," Corbett spokeswoman Kirsten Page said.
The law goes into effect Sept. 5.
Kauffman had already checked her calendar. Sept. 5 is Labor Day, a state holiday, so the Department of Health records office will be closed.
"I'll be the first in line on the next day," she said.