Asia

Hong Kong couple win right to bury miscarried son

Head stones adorn graves in a Roman Catholic cemetery below residential buildings in Hong Kong (18 December 2012) Image copyright AFP
Image caption The Roman Catholic Church in Hong Kong has special permission to bury foetuses born before 24 weeks of gestation

A grieving couple in Hong Kong have finally been granted permission to pick up the body of their son for burial after they miscarried in the 15th week of pregnancy.

The foetus, who they named Wally, has been held at a public hospital in the city since April.

"We're really happy and relieved," the father, Kevin, told BBC News.

"It's bittersweet, of course, but I'm relieved that we've been able to get closure," he said.

"We will finally be able to bury our baby with the dignity and respect that he deserves."

Under current rules, deceased foetuses younger than 24 weeks are not routinely released to their families for burial.

Instead, they are considered to be "clinical waste" and disposed of accordingly.

Kevin and his wife Angela, who are using pseudonyms to protect their privacy, were only allowed to take their son for burial after the Catholic Diocese agreed to step in.

The Church has agreed to set aside space in its private cemetery in eastern Hong Kong for foetuses born before 24 weeks of gestation.

Called "Angel Garden", the space is only available to Roman Catholic families.

Image copyright Other
Image caption Wally's tiny foot and handprints were given to the parents on a condolence card

Kevin said Angela miscarried at home in April and after arriving in hospital, he held his son for seven hours.

He recalled the nurses as being sympathetic and kind, offering to dress the child in tiny dolls' clothing.

The trouble started when the couple tried to claim their child for burial.

"When the hospital said our son was hospital property, our jaws dropped," he said.

"If you have a relative die, and the government confiscates the body, it wouldn't make you feel very good unless you have some kind of resolution."

In a statement to the BBC, the hospital authority, which manages all public hospitals in Hong Kong, said foetuses born without signs of life before 24 weeks of gestation were handled according to the legal requirements of the Environmental Protection Department.

It added that parents were entitled to approach hospitals for release of the body.

In the past year, the authority said it had received 18 such applications, of which 14 had been approved.

But Kevin and Angela's lawyer, Michael Vidler, accused the authorities of taking directions from abortion law which stipulates that 24 weeks is the gestational age above which the foetus is considered stillborn and is allowed to be released for burial.

Currently, abortions in Hong Kong cannot be performed after 24 weeks unless it is necessary to save the life of the pregnant woman.

Kevin said the hospital had previously agreed to release his son's body, but without the documentation required for a proper burial.

"I had nowhere to take him," he explained. "If you take a baby that is considered to be clinical waste, you can't just dispose of it any which way you like.

"I could bury him in my garden, or hold a bonfire at the beach, but it wouldn't be a legal burial. If someone discovers it, they could call the police."

Image caption The Catholic Diocese has arranged for a plot of land to become a burial site for miscarried foetuses

He said that in May, weeks after the miscarriage, the hospital agreed to release the body and suggested the couple go to a pet crematorium - an offer which they quickly rejected.

He said the solution offered by the Roman Catholic Church mirrors what Hong Kong's Islamic cemetery had been allowed to do for decades.

Roman Catholics believe that life begins at conception, while most Muslim scholars say a foetus in the womb is recognised as a human life.

But Kevin wants all families in Hong Kong, regardless of religion or background, to have the option of taking their deceased children for burial or cremation.

"I don't think it should be available only to people of certain religions or certain backgrounds," he said. "I want to see the government change this policy, or for lawmakers to change the law."

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