Foetal funerals or out with the garbage – parents want choices

A foetus lost less than 24 weeks is not legally recognized as a life and will be put into yellow bags to be dumped as medical waste, according to the current policy in Hong Kong. No argument is permitted.

Even if the foetus is claimed by the couple, options for burial are limited as it is not considered a human being.

The issue of public hospitals treating foetal remains as medical waste was raised at a medical conference at The University of Hong Kong on Tuesday morning. Human rights advocates and lawmakers are advocating for a change in policy.

Patient rights, parents’ rights or government decree

The issue first came into the limelight in 2017 when a couple experienced a miscarriage when the foetus was 16 weeks. They had to fight against the Hospital Authority to make it release the foetus for burial.

Mr Michael Vidler, a lawyer who represented the couple, attended the conference on Tuesday to urge for a dignified and respectful burial for foetal remains.

“In essence, the issue relates to government policy that stipulates that only miscarried foetus of 24 weeks and over can be buried or cremated in public facilities, whilst any foetus under 24 weeks is treated as clinical waste and disposed of in the landfill,” his firm says.

Dr May Tse, founder of Little Baby Concern Group, tells Harbour Times that parents who claim the miscarried foetus only have three choices for burial.

“They can bury it in ‘Angel Garden’ which is only available to Roman Catholic families, in one of the Muslim cemeteries if they are Muslims, or in pet crematoria,” she says, adding that the third option is invidious.

She says there are around 10,000 foetuses of such kind in Hong Kong every year.

Dr Tse stresses that the government has yet to offer any help for non-religious parents to bury the foetuses, which her group argues should not be seen merely as waste.

The group also calls for a change in the policy, so these foetuses are not defined as waste and can be buried or cremated legally.

Its concerns have been addressed by Labour Party legislator Dr Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung, who wrote a letter to the government to call for policy changes in October.

Recommendations

He said the amendment could come as an exemption under certain regulations, rather than a change to the 24-week mark, which is an international standard.

“We suggest defining human foetal remains and still-born child separately. These definitions may be added to section 2 (Interpretation) of the Births and Deaths Registration Ordinance,” he says in the letter.

Dr Cheung also urges the government to open a new category under the Births and Deaths Registration Ordinance for human foetus remains. After the miscarried foetus is certified by doctors, it can be buried or procured to be buried.

He further suggests including the cremation and burial of human foetus remains in various regulations, such as the Cremation and Gardens of Remembrance Regulation (Cap.132M), the Public Cemeteries Regulation (Cap. 132BI), the Private Cemeteries Regulation (Cap. 132BF), and the Funeral Parlous Regulation (Cap. 132AD).

Although policy amendment is still underway, the Food and Health Bureau is seeking alternatives to enable dignified burials for these foetuses.

Current workarounds

In its reply to Little Baby Concern Group, it says it allowed the Catholics to draw an area for the foetus remains in their cemeteries in mid-2017.

In August, the bureau also allowed the Chinese Permanent Cemetery to build a garden for the foetus remains, which will be completed by the end of 2018.

Facilities in Wo Hop Shek Public Cemetery to handle the foetus remains will also be completed in the first quarter of 2019.

In Hong Kong, one out of four or five pregnant women under the age of 35 experiences miscarriage. The rate rises to 50/50 for women at the age of 40 to 45.

Values and life

Dr Tse notes that recognizing miscarried foetus as a life is important to life education.

“People will realize it is not easy to give birth and the way we come to the earth isn’t a smooth process,” she says. “The standard and policy [towards foetal remains] are outdated. It is time for a change.”