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The Politics of Stillbirth

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A new movement seeks to award special certificates to fetuses that are stillborn, but pro-choice advocates worry that this is yet another step toward fetal personhood that could endanger abortion rights.

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The Politics of Stillbirth
By Allison Stevens 

Thirteen years ago, Joanne Cacciatore delivered a stillborn fetus, a trauma that was compounded by the fact that she received a death certificate in the mail but no birth certificate — a tangible memento she said would have helped her grieve.

Motivated by her loss, she mounted a grassroots campaign in her home state of Arizona to get the government to give parents who deliver stillborn fetuses the option of receiving a “certificate for stillborn birth” — and in so doing unintentionally waded into the turbulent waters of abortion politics.

Although reproductive rights advocates say they sympathize with Cacciatore, they also fear her effort — which has since ballooned into a nationwide campaign — could aid anti-choice groups as they attempt to chip away at or eliminate abortion rights. “There’s no question in my mind that the anti-abortion crowd will look for some way to use this,” Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, has said. At issue is the question of “personhood,” or when human life begins; the answer lies at the heart of the debate over abortion.

Opponents of abortion rights contend that life begins at the moment of conception, and they have sought to define embryos and fetuses as human beings with a right to life. Under their logic, abortion is murder and should be illegal. Supporters of abortion rights do not equate embryos and fetuses with full human beings. Granting “personhood” to embryos and fetuses before they are born raises their legal status and jeopardizes women’s right to abortion, they say.

Abortion-rights opponents have not taken up the cause of stillborn birth certificates en masse, Cacciatore said. But pro-choice groups worry that Cacciatore’s movement to enact what she calls “Missing Angels” laws, which would grant fetuses that die before they are born certificates of stillbirth, will push anti-choice groups one step further in their quest to make abortion tantamount to murder.

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