Certify births of stillborn

Staff WriterMay 13, 2009 

It has been five years since Heidi Leggett gave birth to a beautiful, but stillborn, baby boy named Hunter.

Life has marched on. It does that with small children in the house. Leggett and her husband, both pilots, had two at the time of Hunter's stillbirth and have had two more since. Leggett has also had numerous health problems.

But not a day passes that Leggett doesn't think of Hunter and the fact that the state has never acknowledged his existence.

In North Carolina, a stillborn is not recognized with a certificate of live birth because it is not born alive. It is not given a certificate of death. It is not recognized at all.

For four years, Leggett has been trying to change that. For four years running, a bill has been introduced to create a certificate of stillbirth. For four years, Leggett has lobbied for the law.

At one point, it seemed a sure thing. But every year, Leggett and other grieving parents have encountered roadblocks. There have always been a couple of senators who used their power to quash the bill.

This year, the roadblocks are higher, and the stakes are higher, too. Some members of the legislature are trying to link the stillbirth bill with fetal homicide legislation that would allow people who murder a pregnant woman to be charged with the death of her unborn child as well.

But the fetal homicide bill is mired in the abortion debate over when life begins. Leggett doesn't want to go there.

She has her own views on the subject, but the certificate of stillbirth does not speak to the origins of life. It is not part of a pro-life political agenda.

To underscore the importance of her signature issue, Leggett pointed to the work begun through the Stillbirth Collaborative Research Network, begun by a member of the Kennedy clan and coordinated by RTI International right here in Research Triangle Park.

The research network will compare data from thousands of mothers of both stillborn and live babies in five regions. North Carolina does not include one of those regions, though RTI will act as a clearinghouse for the data.

Researchers hope to establish a more standardized approach to the handling of stillborn babies, said Corette Parker, principal investigator for RTI's team. This would include an autopsy and a standard list of postmortem tests.

"I've heard from women who literally had a stillborn baby thrown in the trash," Leggett said.

Most important, by looking at genetics, environmental factors, maternal disease and other factors, researchers hope the amassed data in the network will begin to show patterns that might help explain why so many babies are stillborn every year. Stillbirths far outnumber sudden infant death syndrome deaths every year.

Yet in North Carolina, they are not recognized.

That could change this week as lawmakers make the mad dash to "crossover," the deadline for legislation to clear either the House or Senate to stay alive this session. Against the backdrop of a massive budget shortfall, establishing a certificate of stillbirth may seem like a small matter.

But to parents like Leggett who've experienced a mysterious stillbirth, it would mean so much. And who knows? It might save other families from the loss and pain in the future. or 919-829-4828

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