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The politics of grief 

In February, when WKMG-TV Local 6 aired a "Problem Solvers" series titled "Choice to Grieve" that focused on the trauma endured by women who miscarried -- complete with tear-jerking testimony -- it was easy to be moved by their loss. Yet miscarriage in and of itself wasn't the focus of the broadcasts. The series honed in on the fact that Florida law (as well as the law in 44 other states) treats the death of a fetus that's been gestating for less than 20 weeks as a "medical incident," after which the remains are disposed of like clinical waste and the parents are sent on their way. After 20 weeks, the remains are treated like a full-grown decedent, and the parents are notified of their options to bury or cremate the remains and provided with a death certificate.

Having to listen to tales of miscarriage is wrenching enough. But then to hear women speak of being cheated of their "right to grieve" due to a legal technicality is the kind of television that keeps people's attention during sweeps. And that's precisely what happened. After an initial newscast, Local 6 reported that they were besieged by callers outraged by the law, including a local woman who had miscarried twice and been treated in two entirely different ways by the same hospital. (The current law doesn't prohibit hospitals from treating all miscarriages equally, it just doesn't require it.)

Three more broadcasts followed the initial report, including one that found State Rep. Randy Johnson (R-Winter Garden) showing the Local 6 footage to a House committee that -- what's this? -- just happened to be debating House Bill 0089, the Stephanie Saboor Grieving Parents Rights Act, written by Johnson. The stories of these women who were "denied the right to grieve" most certainly had an impact on the Health Standards subcommittee, which unanimously supported Johnson's bill. (The bill still has to make it out of the larger Health Care committee before going for a vote by the House, so it's a good bet that this particular "Problem Solvers" episode will get lots of unexpected airtime.)

The coincidences don't stop there. According to Skip Valet, the News Director at Local 6, the station was tipped off to the story by someone who "had a relationship to Saboor." Nothing wrong there. A tip's a tip. Saboor -- the person whose name is on the bill -- was the first woman Local 6 profiled, as she had suffered a miscarriage herself.

However, Saboor's miscarriage took place in Illinois, not Florida. Illinois is one of the five states that requires hospitals to treat all miscarriages -- regardless of time of gestation -- equally. Saboor, as is evidenced by the newscast, just wanted to make sure that Florida women were able to have "the same choices" she had.

Women who miscarry in Florida already have those choices. Nothing currently prevents a woman from taking possession of fetal remains except her own lack of knowledge of her legal rights.

But when it comes to fetal death, choices and Florida Republicans, things are rarely that simple. Let me try to clarify.

The linchpin upon which Roe vs. Wade survives is the definition of "personhood." The final Supreme Court ruling explicitly states: "If this suggestion of personhood [for a fetus] is established ... the fetus' right to life is then guaranteed specifically by the [Fourteenth] Amendment."

It doesn't take a legal scholar to realize that the Right to Life movement has seized upon this in its court battles over the years. From laws establishing penalties for feticide, to President Bush's plan to provide medical coverage to "unborn children," to various resolutions ascribing "human rights" to fetuses, the game for anti-abortion activists isn't to overthrow Roe, but to render it moot by incrementally redefining "personhood" all the way back to conception. This Stephanie Saboor Grieving Parents Rights Act, regardless of the positive effect it might have for women who miscarry, is another incremental end-run around Roe. Which could explain why area ministers -- particularly Baptist ministers -- have taken quite a cotton to the cause, showing the Local 6 broadcasts to their parishioners to rally support.

How could a small, well-meaning bill have such grand intentions? Just look at where it came from. It just so happens that Stephanie Saboor shares her College Park home with John P. Saboor, the Executive Director of the Central Florida Sports Commission. The president and CEO of the sports commission is none other than Rep. Randy Johnson. It's a given that Johnson -- who represents not only Winter Garden, but Windermere, Clermont, Celebration and not College Park -- would like to maintain his good standing with both the state Republican Party and the Christian Coalition (who gave him a grade of 100 percent on their 2002 "Legislative Scorecard"). How best to do that? How about by authoring a bill (and naming it after his friend's telegenic wife) that goes just one more step in redefining "personhood?"

Perhaps Johnson wasn't satisfied with a mere A-plus from the Christian Coalition. Perhaps the Stephanie Saboor Grieving Parents Rights Act is a shot at a little extra credit.

Need a shoulder to cry on?

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