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Cherishing the life of a stillborn

Publication: Patriot-News, The (Harrisburg, PA)
Date: July 17, 2011
Page: A01, A20

Cherishing the life of a stillborn

Stephanie Cole carried her daughter for 41 weeks. After a 21-hour labor that included two hours of pushing, she gave birth to her firstborn, Madeline Jonna Cole. Cole never heard Madeline cry. Even though Madeline didn't live past her nine months in the womb, Cole said she considers her as just as much a part of her family as her other two children, ages 3 and 2. "Madeline was my first child, and I had to struggle with people who didn't see me as a mother when I absolutely was," the Lancaster woman said.
Madeline was stillborn, and under Pennsylvania law, the government didn't recognize her life. Gov. Tom Corbett recently signed legislation that gives children such as Madeline new recognition by offering special birth certificates to about 1, 000 Pennsylvania families every year that have a stillbirth.
Pennsylvania had been one of 22 states that did not issue stillborn children birth certificates. The state did, however, issue them death certificates and require that they be buried or cremated.
Starting in September, the socalled Missing Angels law will grant parents the ability to apply to the state Department of Health for the certificates, known as a Certificate of Birth Resulting in Stillbirth, for their child.
The law covers all past recorded stillbirths as well as new cases. "I can't believe I might actually have [Madeline's] birth certificate in my hands by her fifth birthday," Cole said. "I can't put into words just how much that would mean to me." For Cole's best friend, Nicole Jackson, whose son, Thomas Maximus Jackson was stillborn a year and a half ago, a birth certificate would mean that he would never be forgotten.
"It gives me goosebumps to think that my son would be acknowledged.
I am so excited to get something to prove to me that he did more than just come here and die," Jackson said. "I have a fetal death certificate, but that's all I have. This will celebrate.. the nine months that I carried him and the 12 hours that I spent holding my dead baby." Sen. Jake Corman, R-Centre County, whose district includes Perry County, authored the bill, which he said has stalled in the Democratic House in the past two legislative sessions partly because of abortion politics. Republicans control the House this year, and Corman lauded last month's adoption of the bill.
"It's a very compassionate thing to do" and will help families cope "with a very difficult situation," he said.
Cole, who runs a project to help families who have gone through stillbirths, said it does not matter if a baby never lived outside of the womb, a birth certificate is a "matter of respect for what the mother has gone through" in the birthing and pregnancy process.
"Once you've carried life inside of you, it just makes you into a completely different person. The process of.. having something be born from your body is transformational," she said. When you have "something die within you.. you have the same emotions and pain, but you don't get that joy at the end." Dorothy Knappenberger, an Allentown-area woman who has fought for more than four years to get a birth certificate for her stillborn great-granddaughter Senica Tonge, agreed that government needs to close the disconnect between the law and what the families feel.
"There's a gravestone and a candle. We take flowers. What was in that white little coffin? Why was the whole family devastated" if this baby was never a life? Knappenberger asked.
Knappenberger recognizes that a birth certificate is "a little piece of paper." "To those moms and dads, it's a precious piece of paper," she said. "It acknowledges that they gave birth to this baby that was loved and named. They all had nurseries ready and names picked out. And they go home with empty arms."
Advocates contend the recognition of a child's birth is important because stillbirths are not counted in the infant mortality rate, which means that less money goes toward stillbirth research.
While many stillbirths are caused by umbilical-cord accidents or other factors, about half of the 26, 000 children born still in the U.S. every year are attributed to unknown causes.

"Madeline was my first child, and I had to struggle with people who didn't see me as a mother when I absolutely was," says Stephanie Cole of Lancaster, the mother of Madeline Jonna Cole, who was stillborn.

"I have a fetal death certificate, but that's all I have.  This will celebrate... the nine months that I carried him and the 12 hours that I spent holding my dead baby."