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Fretts estimates a third of mothers never get asked about an autopsy, and there's no good count of how many are done. It's a delicate issue for families who may know the procedure only from grisly TV crime shows. The guidelines stress explaining that such testing can be crucial to calculating future pregnancy risk and needed care, and is conducted with respect. Families who reject a full autopsy should be offered alternatives, such as full-body X-rays and biopsies, the guidelines say.
An autopsy isn't immediate. The Owens spent seven hours with Clare to say goodbye. Complicating the choice, insurance doesn't always pay -- Owen's did -- and the tab can reach $1,500.
Moreover, Fretts says most death certificates are filled out before a stillbirth assessment is completed, meaning scientists culling them for new clues never see key information.
"That isn't good enough," says Owen, frustrated that Clare's autopsy merely ruled out known stillbirth causes. The main clue was that Clare weighed almost 11 pounds, startling for slim parents. "We need to get together and come up with better answers."
To help, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., is writing legislation that aims to increase stillbirth research and public awareness. Also, the March of Dimes is designing a Web-based tool to one day guide women in asking relatives about miscarriages, stillbirths and other family conditions, helping doctors better determine their risk and alter prenatal care accordingly.
For now, Owen is hanging onto sympathetic care from a high-risk OB practice that allows repeated reassurance sonograms during her new pregnancy -- and figuring out how to handle well-meaning "is this your first" queries from strangers.
"Do I, you know, bring this person down by saying, 'Oh no, we have one in heaven and we hope that we get to keep this one?' I can't deny Clare's existence, but it's also very uncomfortable," she says.
On the Net:
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists: http://www.acog.org/
Stillbirth-related groups: http://www.firstcandle.org/ and http://www.stillbirthalliance.org/
Lauran Neergaard covers health and medical issues for The Associated Press in Washington.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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