Three weeks before she was due to give birth, Heidi Kauffman of Port Royal, Pa., found out the baby she carried for nearly nine months had died. After enduring a painful labor to deliver Kail, Kauffmann went home to a nursery stocked with gifts from her baby shower without her baby.
Instead of a birth certificate, she got a death certificate.
But after a six-year battle, Kauffman has won the right to receive a Certificate of Birth Resulting in Stillbirth for baby Kail, a victory she hopes will comfort other families grieving the loss of a loved one whose life in the womb is rarely acknowledged.
"I want people to realize that he was a part of our family. You can't take that nine months and erase it," Kauffman said.
Finding out that Kail's birth wasn't recognized by the state, Kauffman said, was "like a slap in the face." "I just couldn't accept that. He weighed 7 pounds, 10 ounces, and he was beautiful," Kauffman said.
On Sept. 5, 2011, Pennsylvania will become the 31st state to offer the certificate upon request. For Kauffman and her husband Johann, the passing of the law is bittersweet.
"With all the emotions and tragedy that surround stillbirth, at least it will now be recognized that, yes, these moms did carry a child and yes, they gave birth. Hopefully it will help them heal."
The push for states to offer Certificates of Birth Resulting in Stillbirth started in Arizona in 1999 with Joanne Cacciatore, a trauma and grief counselor in Phoenix and mother of Cheyenne, who died about 15 minutes before she was born.
"No one else should have to go through what I felt when I called the office of records and they told me I didn't have a baby," said Cacciatore, who helped Kauffman lobby for the Pennsylvania bill. "We need to extend the same compassion to women who experience the death of a baby to families who experience the death of a teenager."
A stillbirth, Cacciatore said, is no less tragic than any other death.
"Very few things are more traumatic than the experience of birth and death at the same time," she said. "A mother then goes home to an empty room, breast milk, postpartum hormones and people's comments. It's a very biologically, socially and emotionally traumatic experience for women."
Cacciatore said the birth certificate is deeply symbolic; much like a marriage certificate is for gay couples. She also hopes it will incite a change in culture when it comes to talking about stillbirth.
"When people ask me how many children I have, I'll say I have four who walk and one who soars," she said. "The love of a parent transcends death. Just because she died at birth doesn't make her any less valuable."
But the battle for birth certificates was fraught with opposition, with abortion rights groups arguing they could be used as fodder by anti-abortion activists. But the law, which makes the certificate available upon request following non-elective terminations, does not seek to define when life begins.
Although Kail is gone, the Kauffmans and their children, 17-year-old Shanna, 16-year-old Devin and 4-year-old Kyra think about him every day. They honor him by donating to their local Ronald McDonald House, planting trees, writing his name in the sand and visiting his grave.
"I think they realize what a big part of my life he is," Kauffman said of her other children. "They often say, "If Kail was here, what do you think he'd be doing? What do you think he'd be like?' Sometimes it makes me smile, sometimes it makes me cry."
As the family watched the July 4 fireworks, Kyra asked, 'Do you think Kail's watching in heaven?"
The family will attend a ceremonial signing of the bill July 27. And Kauffman plans to be first in line for Kail's birth certificate September 5.
"I think fighting for this helped me," Kauffman said, describing the overwhelming guilt she felt when Kail died inside her.
"It made me feel like I could do something for him."