Memorial Service

Image by massdistraction via Flickr

Before I read Robert Kastenbaum’s textbook on death and dying, I was not aware that some U. S. newspapers refuse to print the obituaries of stillborn infants. I had to read the statement twice to believe it was there–to be fair to Kastembaum, he does not like that fact any more than I. Although my fraternal twin brother, Jeffrey, was not stillborn, he died two hours after birth of severe bilateral pulmonary hemorrhage. The tendency in society is to downplay the import of such losses and downplay the parents’ grief. “The child really didn’t get a chance to live.” Granted, the child’s life was short, but what follows from that? Is a mother or father’s love somehow missing because a baby was stillborn or died shortly after birth? What gives a newspaper a moral right to deny the existence of such infants to the point of refusing to print their obituaries? I wonder if a society that allows abortion through the ninth month of pregnancy (provided, during that last trimester, that a woman has a doctor certify that the fetus is a threat to her physical and/or “mental” health) can properly value stillbirths or infants dying shortly after birth. Those newspapers that forbid such obituaries are reflecting the values of moral liberals in the wider society, liberals who do not admit the intrinsic value of human life from conception onward. Such an attitude is reflected in bioethicist Peter Singer’s statement that “An adult chimpanzee is of more moral worth than a newborn human infant.” He would go as far as to deny personhood to a newborn until the baby is a week old, and even then Singer does not believe that true moral personhood is present until the child is several years old. American society may not be quite that radical, but when children are considered to be burdens rather than gifts, a stillborn infant can be relegated to secondary status–or perhaps to tertiary status, lower on the scale of value than nonhuman animals.

Recent research on grief suggests that parents, especially mothers, mourn deeply over stillbirths and over infants who die shortly after birth. The least a newspaper can do is to acknowledge their loss by printing their child’s obituary. To do otherwise is to exhibit a fundamental lack of respect for the dignity of the stillborn infant or of the infant who dies shortly after birth. To do otherwise says that the severe grief felt by parents over the infant’s death is misguided. I suggest that it is not the parents who are misguided; it is newspaper editors who refuse to respect the dignity of all human persons, born, stillborn, or unborn.

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