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Germany

Parents fight for rights of stillborn children

In Germany stillborn babies weighing less than 500 grams are disposed of without being registered - almost as if they never existed. Now parents have successfully petitioned the German parliament to change the law.

Barbara and Mario Martin should have had three babies. But Joseph-Lennard and the twins Tamino and Penelope were born far too prematurely and died. "The doctors were unable to tell us why it happened," Barbara Martin said. "Initially the pregnancies were unproblematic."

The Martins lost their first son, Joseph-Lennard, in the seventh month of pregnancy following a rupture of the membranes - the baby weighed just 440 grams (15.5 ounces). "He was a perfect baby - only too small and weak," Barbara said.

A year later Barbara is expecting twins and the couple is forced to go through the same ordeal again. In the sixth month of pregnancy, Tamino Federico was stillborn, weighing only 290 grams. Four weeks later the second baby was born: Penelope weighed 500 grams and lived for just one hour.

Stillborn babies under 500 grams are not registered

Barbara and Mario Martin with memorabilia of their dead babies

The Martins' grief was heightened by German red tape

"We asked ourselves why God allows such things to happen," Mario Martin said. "And our grief was exacerbated by the German laws." Only Penelope was included in the family register because her heart was beating after birth and she had reached the 500-gram-threshold (1.1 pounds).

Under German law, the Martin's two sons are disregarded because stillborn children weighing less than 500 grams are considered miscarriages. There is no birth certificate, no death certificate to prove they ever existed.

"This really hurts! After all our two sons were with us, their hearts were beating and I gave birth to them," Barbara said of her grief.

'Hygienic disposal'

These so-called "Sternenkinder" or "star children" are not even entitled to being buried in a cemetery.

"They are treated like hospital waste," said an outraged Mario Martin. "We suspect that some of these children are disposed of with surgically removed organs and limbs."

The burial laws of most German states stipulate that miscarriages are to be "cremated hygienically and ethically."

In some places there are collective burials sites for such prematurely born babies. Many parents, however, would like to have their own grave where they can mourn.

"We need a place where we can grieve," said Barbara Martin. While the graveyard administration in their hometown of Niederbrechen in Hesse allowed the Martins to bury their children in the grave of the great-grandparents, not all cemeteries are as accommodating.

40,000 signatures for a parliamentary petition

Gravestone with red candle Photo: Fotolia/forelle66

A place to grieve properly is crucial, say the Martins

For a long time children weighing less than 500 grams were considered too weak to survive. But with the help of modern medical science much smaller babies - even below 300 grams - are capable of pulling through.

The Martins, however, said there should not be any weight threshold determining whether a baby is registered in Germany. So they launched a campaign to change Germany's civil status laws.

They studied the legal texts, discussed the issue with lawyers, doctors and politicians and ultimately collected 40,000 signatures for a petition demanding the German parliament amend the law to permit all stillborn babies to be registered and buried upon parents' request.

Support from Chancellor Angela Merkel

The Martins with Angela Merkel in Berlin Photo: Private collection

Angela Merkel, center, pledged her full support to the Martins

The Martins went to Berlin, met parliamentarians and even managed to talk to Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"She told us that she considers this topic important and promised her full support," Barbara Martin said.

The couple's petition was successful and the German Bundestag is set to vote on an amendment to the law in November.

The Martins themselves said they were surprised how much they have achieved. They always used to think that mere citizens were unable to influence big politics, says Mario Martin. "Our petition showed us that it isn't that difficult to approach politicians and change things."

Arduous adoption procedures

Barbara and Mario Martin still want to have children. But they are too scared of the risks of a new pregnancy, so they have applied to adopt a child. Mario Martin said the procedure is arduous. But having tasted success, the Martins said once changes to the star children law comes into effect, they Martins may decide to campaign for easier adoption laws, too.

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