Stillbirth bill sparks squabble in Legislature
By Edwin Garcia
MediaNews Sacramento Bureau
06/05/2007 01:29:29 AM PDT
SACRAMENTO - It began as a noble idea: Comfort mothers whose babies die at delivery by allowing them to purchase an official California "certificate of stillbirth."
But by the time the state Senate voted - and approved - the measure Monday, it had become a referendum on abortion rights and one of the oddest and messiest fights this year in the Legislature.
"Horrible, horrible process," fumed the author, Sen. Abel Maldonado, R-San Luis Obispo, after the Senate voted in favor, barely. "My bill, in essence, was hijacked."
Maldonado, and the grieving mothers from Southern California who asked him to introduce what they referred to as a "bipartisan" bill, never intended for the measure to delve into the abortion debate.
Women who deliver a stillborn child are sent home with a fetal death certificate, then must bury or cremate their children. The proposed law, also known as the Missing Angels Act, would allow parents to pay the state $20 for a certificate of stillbirth.
But at the insistence of Democrats, who dominate the Legislature, language was added to the bill to "reaffirm" a woman's right to choose after concerns were raised that the measure could potentially undermine that legal right.
"They inserted hostile language in my bill," Maldonado said - language that may have soothed Democrats but assured that most Republicans would vote against it.
Of the 20 state legislatures that have passed similar laws, none took on the divisive tone that California's lawmakers engaged in, according to the head of an international support group for advocates of stillborn certificates.
"I'm really tired of families who experience the trauma of stillbirth getting thrown into the middle of a debate that has absolutely nothing to do with them," said Joanne Cacciatore, chief executive of the MISS Foundation in Phoenix. "I'm really unhappy about it because it's not an abortion issue."
After initially failing for lack of support on the Senate floor, the measure, SB850, finally passed with a 22-14 vote and only two Republicans in support: Maldonado, whose district extends into San Jose, and Dennis Hollingsworth, who represents Temecula and whose campaign Web site calls him "the man the liberals fear most."
About 3,100 California women deliver stillborn children in California each year; stillbirth is a naturally occurring fetal death after the 20th week of pregnancy. Typically, this means the full-term or nearly full-term babies died at the hospital, right before or during birth. A stillbirth, which is different from a miscarriage, occurs once in every 100 pregnancies - 10 times as frequently as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
"In our minds, this is a very simple bill that recognizes the birth of stillborn babies," said Sari Edber of Los Angeles, whose son, Jacob, died last July in a hospital just three weeks before her due date.
"It's difficult to watch a bill that seems so simple and clear become something complicated, when it really shouldn't be," said Edber, who wants the certificate for a scrapbook she's putting together about Jacob and her pregnancy.
The measure's controversial language, adopted by the Senate Judiciary Committee, reads: "Through its courts, statutes, and under its Constitution, California law protects a woman's right to reproductive privacy, and it is the intent of the Legislature to reaffirm these protections ..."
Committee Chairwoman Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, did not respond to a request for an interview Monday afternoon.
But the added language - and what it symbolizes - drove the divisive debate on the floor of the Senate.
"This is a bill that I want to vote for, but I can't," said Sen. Sam Aanestad, R-Nevada City, one of the Senate's most conservative members. "I'm not going to vote to reaffirm Roe vs. Wade, but my heart goes out to those mothers and families who've had to endure the politics of this house in order to get a simple piece of legislation through, which Sen. Maldonado very ably describes as a hug from the Legislature."
Sen. Sheila Kuehl, D-Los Angeles, and one of the most liberal members, said she'd vote in favor not because of the pro-choice wording, but because Maldonado cares for the families.
"The original language of the bill - whether many people thought so or not - some of us believed that there was the possibility of an inherent threat to the established law and to a woman's right to choose," she said. "As now drafted, I don't think that it takes a position one way or the other, actually."
The measure now moves to the Assembly for consideration in policy committees.
Maldonado and parents pushing for the stillborn certificates will attempt to remove the word "reaffirm," to keep the measure from being a political statement about abortion.
"I'm going to try to work with the Assembly Health Committee, and hopefully we can change that word," he said. "If not, I don't know what's going to happen."