By: Dorothy Giobbe
FALLOUT FROM THE national debate over abortion landed in the newsroom of the Eugene (Ore.) Register-Guard recently after it published an obituary for an in utero “death.”
The obituary was placed by a funeral home for a couple that had been expecting twins. But the pregnancy never progressed past sixteen weeks ? the early stage of the second trimester ? because of complications caused by a tangled umbilical chord.
The obituary read, in part, “no services are planned for Daniel and Jacob Higdon, who died February 27 at 16 weeks’ gestation . . . .”
Although it was the first time the Register-Guard had ever received an obituary for an in utero death, managing editor Jim Godbold ? who had lost a child to muscular dystrophy last year ? said that he understood the couple’s desire to publicly mourn its loss, and he made the decision to publish the obituary.
“I was responding emotionally as much as intellectually,” Godbold said. “I wondered if I should just say yes and see what questions were prompted by it.
“It wasn’t a political decision, and it was only later, after talking to people, that I saw the political overtones,” Godbold added.
And overtones there are. In the volatile debate over abortion, words and phrases are claimed and rejected by advocates on each side of the issue. Discord has broken out in newsrooms across the country over the use of terms such as “pro-choice”, “pro-life” and “pro-abortion” and “anti-abortion.”
The editorial position of the Register-Guard “supports Roe vs. Wade, which is the law of the land,” Godbold said.
The newspaper heard from a handful of community residents, some supporting Godbold’s decision, and some maintaining it set a dangerous precedent.
If obituaries are published for in utero deaths, some argue, opponents of abortion might use it as an opening which could lead to other demands.
“It’s a real dangerous area to get into,” said Tim Gallagher, editor of the Ventura County (Calif.) Star.
“Of the groups who oppose abortion, certain factions have zealots and have resorted to murder,” Gallagher said.
“What could be the next step? Could they get the names of the women who have had abortions and try to put their names in the newspaper listed as in utero deaths?”
Gallagher noted that most hospitals have privacy safeguards, but “I wouldn’t put it past people who are really opposed [to abortion].”
The Star hasn’t been tested on the issue, Gallagher said, “though my inclination is not to list them.” However, he added, “a door is open to listen to argument.”
In Eugene, Godbold said that the local Planned Parenthood chapter “was concerned that publication [of the obit] granted ‘personhood’ to a fetus, and that the publication changed the nature of the newspaper’s position on that.”
Eventually, the incident was discussed on a local talk radio show, and the local news program covered it. In response to the growing controversy, the Higdons wrote a letter to the Register-Guard, which was published on the letters page.
“The death of our sons was very sad and traumatic for us, and all we wanted to do was let our friends and family know what happened without having to repeat it many, many times,” the letter read.
“When we had our sons’ obituaries published, we were not making an [sic] statement or editorial, we were doing what any family that suffers a tremendous loss would have done.”
While Godbold takes time to consult with others about the handling of in utero obituaries, the Register-Guard has reverted to its former position. According to that policy, the newspaper will only publish obituaries for stillborn deaths that are carried to full term, and premature births which subsequently result in death.
In the meantime, Godbold wants to hear from other newspapers around the country. So far, suggestions have included the possibility of the Register-Guard running a “Notice of Loss” section, where in utero deaths and miscarriages could be announced. But Godbold said he isn’t rushing to set a new policy.
“I’m not at a crazy kind of breakneck pace,” he said, “I’m going to take my time with this and do a thoughtful job.”