We’ll be hearing a lot about stillbirths in the coming months. On Thursday, The Lancet, Britain’s premiere medical journal and one of the most respected medical publications in the world, started publishing the most comprehensive ever assessment of stillbirths.
As well as presenting the few medical facts available, the study examines perceptions and beliefs around the world. It also details ways to prevent what is usually a heartbreaking event, and especially a woman’s loss, that often leaves families with lasting scars.
In 135 countries examined, most “angel babies” are disposed of without recognition or rituals, such as naming, funeral rites, or the mother holding or dressing the baby. “Stigma and blame add to and prolong parents’ grief,” the Lancet series stated. “The silence surrounding stillbirths hides the problem.” Lack of recognition and documentation also impedes potentially helpful investments by the healthcare community.
Burial practices at a suburban Chicago cemetery
An investigation by Sheriff Tom Dart and Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey earlier this month revealed that stillborn babies had been piled into boxes, just as the remains of indigent adults were stacked haphazardly in mass graves at Homewood, a suburban Chicago cemetery. Dart’s office found caskets being stacked as many as eight high and the remains of infants put in boxes with other infants, the bones of animals, and other remains identified as “mixed tissues.”
Have you, or has anyone you have known, ever suffered the loss of a baby at birth? Every year, at least 2.6 million human offspring worldwide die in the third trimester of pregnancy, when they might possibly have survived with medical attention. Half die during delivery. Stillbirth occurs occurring in approximately 1 of 120 deliveries, yet in most cases the cause of death remains a mystery.
The Lancet study found that the number of stillbirths could be reduced almost half by 2015 in the most affected areas (lower-income groups and the “Third World”) at a cost of $2.32 per person. How? By improving obstetric care; treating syphilis infections and hypertension in pregnant women; and identifying and treating medical conditions that block fetal growth.
Recently, grassroots stillbirth service programs have begun to form in American communities with the aim of helping families and health professionals understand the cause of stillbirth, reduce its frequency, and support families experiencing loss. One such organization is Indiana’s Kate Cares, the Kate Carmichael Stillbirth Program, which provides testing guidelines and a panel of experts who try to determine the cause of death and make recommendations that might help a future pregnancy or other family members.
In the United States, we have an excellent nationwide provider system for reproductive health care and powerful advocate for women’s health. Eight hundred centers nationwide bring millions of women health care services each year that help keep down the stillbirth numbers in this country.
Services include a commitment to dedicated, professional staff; provision of high-quality, affordable reproductive health care; education, testing, and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, including congenital syphilis, which is again on the rise in the U.S. and worldwide; and proactive measures to reduce conditions like smoking and obesity, which affect fetal growth during pregnancy and often cause stillbirth or death in the first four weeks of life.
This organization, America’s foremost provider of reproductive health care and education, and our largest and most powerful advocacy organization for women’s health, was established 95 years ago. Their international division publishes many books about reproduction, including an guide by Shirley Miller called Christian Family Life Education: A Guide for Teaching about Adolescent Sexuality and Reproductive Health. In 2002, then-president Gloria Feldt reaffirmed the commitment to reduce stillbirths, stating that her group “has a long-standing history of support efforts aimed at enhancing maternal health and the likelihood of a healthy infant.”
The group’s name is the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. They’ve been made famous for something else.
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