Rorate Caeli

Baptizing Miscarried and Stillborn Babies: The Other Unborn

Rorate note: The following comes to us from a friend and mother with a law degree from a Catholic law school who has a calling to help parents baptize miscarried and stillborn children. We encourage our readers to share, re-post and translate this important article into other languages. We also encourage our bishops and priestly readers to take the time to read this carefully and with an open heart. 


Baptizing Miscarried and Stillborn Babies: The Other Unborn

By Anonymous Mother

"Care should be taken that every fetus born prematurely, no matter at what stage of pregnancy, be baptized absolutely, if life is certain, but conditionally if life is doubtful. ... [U]nusual forms of fetus [miscarriage or stillbirth] should always be baptized, at least conditionally; when in doubt if the fetus is one being or several, one should be baptized absolutely, the others conditionally." -- Code of Canon Law, 1917

***

Abortion is the utmost tragedy of humanity.  God-willing we will see the end of this travesty during our lifetimes.  It is so wonderful that there has been a surge of awareness and many brave pro-lifers are willing fight for the dignity of life for these babies.  Numerous organizations and resources for those who have had abortions or whose lives have been affected by abortion have been created.  Evangelicum Vitae affirmed the humanity of purposely aborted babies from the moment of conception and these babies are getting the recognition they deserve by virtue of the sanctity of their lives.     

In stark contrast to the 1917 Code of Canon Law and the traditional Catholic Encyclopedia, the modern Church has eliminated the guidance on baptizing miscarried and stillborn babies.  While the traditional Church teaching was to require that these babies be baptized at any stage in the pregnancy, the modern Church has moved away from that teaching.  However, the Church’s stance on abortion and the fact that life begins at conception has remained firm. The 1983 Code of Canon Law only mentions baptizing if an “aborted fetus” is born alive, and the new Catechism says to only “entrust them to the mercy of God” without encouraging conditional Baptism.  The Vatican later tried to bury Limbo.  But the question still remains, if children are not baptized to be received into Heaven, then where do their souls go?

The miscarried and stillborn are the other aborted babies, the spontaneously aborted (to use a medical term), the ones whose grieving parents and family members suffer in silence.  Many do not have a variety of resources to reach out to, a good priest who is prepared to counsel them through their loss, or anywhere to bury their baby’s tiny body. 

The aim of this article is to change that and bring to light the clear teachings of the Church, prior to the current crisis, that miscarried and stillborn babies are entitled to the sacrament of Baptism.


The lives of miscarried and stillborn babies began at conception.  They became brand-new, unique souls, distinct from their parents, who never existed but for the cooperation of their parents with God.  They are the babies who are wanted, loved, and desired from the moment their parents get the pregnancy test results.  The babies whose joy-filled parents form so many plans and hopes for in anticipation of their arrival very early on in their pregnancy.  The babies whose parents will love them no matter what and would never consider terminating their life.  Suddenly, these parents’ hearts are pierced with fear and sorrow when signs of a miscarriage begin and baby is delivered at home way too soon, or they get the devastating news on an ultrasound that the baby’s heart is no longer beating and must deliver the baby prematurely of the due date in the hospital. 

Where do these parents, who feel so helpless, turn for comfort, consolation or counselling? Whether it’s the loss of a first baby or the first loss after multiple babies, it is shocking, scary, sad and everything in between.  If you have not been made aware of what to do in the event of a miscarriage or stillbirth ahead of time, it can feel like the rug was pulled out from under you and you are at a complete and total loss.

Parents Take Heart and Have Hope in Baptism

In those first moments of utter helplessness, find your strength in the promise of salvation that God gives through Baptism.  Your hands will tremble, your eyes well up with tears, you will wonder if you are even doing this right – but take heart and make the act of conditional Baptism for your miscarried or stillborn baby.

If after extraction it is doubtful whether it be still alive, it is to be baptized under the condition: "If thou art alive, [I baptize Thee in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost]." Physicians, mothers, and midwives ought to be reminded of the grave obligation of administering baptism under these circumstances. It is to be borne in mind that according to the prevailing opinion among the learned, the fetus [Latin for “little one”] is animate by a human soul from the very beginning of its conception. In cases of delivery where the issue is a mass that is not certainly animated by human life, it is to be baptized conditionally: "If thou art a man, [I baptize Thee in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost].”  Baptism of Unborn Infants, Catholic Encyclopedia

Code of Canon Law of 1917 and Justification for Baptizing the Miscarried and Stillborn

In the 1917 Code of Canon Law, the Church required the Baptism of these babies.  The 1917 Code has been incredibly informative on the teachings of the Church regarding baptizing our miscarried and stillborn babies.  It should be noted that this Code was promulgated during a time when people were more reluctant to discuss issues of this nature than we are now. 

The 1917 Code clearly and unambiguously states:

Care should be taken that every fetus born prematurely, no matter at what stage of pregnancy, be baptized absolutely, if life is certain, but conditionally if life is doubtful.
Code of Canon Law, 1917, para. 590, c. 747 (emphasis added) [U]nusual forms of fetus [Latin meaning ‘little one’ referring to prematurely miscarried or stillborn babies] should always be baptized, at least conditionally; when in doubt if the fetus is one being or several, one should be baptized absolutely, the others conditionally.
Code of Canon Law, 1917, para. 591, c. 748  (emphasis added)

The 1917 Code is also very instructive on cases of early miscarriage when the mother begins to show signs of an impending miscarriage, and in miscarriages and stillbirths when it is determined that the baby’s heart has stopped beating or the baby is no longer developing.  The Code states that:

An infant shall not be baptized while still enclosed in the mother’s womb, as long as there is probable hope that it can be baptized when born. … If the fetus was baptized in the mother’s womb, the child shall, when born, be baptized again conditionally.Para. 589 of the Code of Canon Law 1917, c. 746 (emphasis added)

In cases such as these, where an ultrasound has determined that the baby is no longer showing signs of physical life and the delivery will result in a miscarriage or stillbirth, it would be prudent to baptize the baby while still enclosed and being nourished in the womb, prior to delivery.  In this situation, there is no “probable hope” that the baby will be able to be baptized when born. 

Even when baptized while enclosed in the womb because there was no “probable hope” of a live birth, the Code still states, emphatically, that the baby, when born, “shall … be baptized again conditionally.” This is in keeping with the belief that we do not know and can never know when the soul actually leaves the body.  Furthermore, the Ritual Romanum, which every priest should be familiar with, also reiterates these clear instructions on the Baptism of Children in its General Rules of Holy Baptism. 

The teachings of the traditional Church were very clear on the Baptism of miscarried and stillborn babies.  The traditional Church did not neglect any opportunity to baptize a prematurely-born fetus, “little one”, at any stage of a pregnancy.  The traditional Church strongly and firmly urged the Baptism of the miscarried and stillborn. 

The Modern Teaching on Baptism for the Miscarried and Unborn

The post-Vatican II Church has largely done away with urging Baptism for these precious souls, as they simply assume these babies are dead, their souls gone, and cannot be baptized, because they say the sacraments are for the living.  Thus, they focus on the funeral rites of these babies instead, and even go so far as to discourage Baptism of these little ones. 

The current Catechism of the Catholic Church 1261 states:

 As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus' tenderness toward children which caused him to say: "Let the children come to me, do not hinder them," allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church's call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism.

This current Catechism includes miscarried and stillborn babies with children who were born capable of living outside the womb for a longer period of time than a miscarried or stillborn baby – but were not baptized prior to their death.  The 1983 Code in Canon 871 states that “If aborted fetuses [miscarriages are considered spontaneous abortions] are alive, they are to be baptized insofar as possible.” 

Miscarried and stillborn babies became human persons, with body and soul, at conception just like babies born viable outside the womb and aborted babies.  However, miscarried and stillborn babies are distinct from babies born at viability and babies who are purposely aborted in their mother’s womb.  These babies are unique in that we cannot discern death of these developing fetuses in the same way we could determine death of an older unbaptized child.  For instance, medical staff can, clinically, measure the heart rate or determine the Apgar scores of these little ones like they do with full-term babies to determine whether the baby is alive upon birth.  However, science and medicine most certainly cannot be sure whether the soul has left the body of these little ones.  While it may be very difficult to discern signs of life in these miscarried and stillborn babies upon premature birth, it does not mean that the soul does not remain awaiting Baptism. 

The current Catechism clearly states, “All the more urgent is the Church's call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism.”  Unfortunately, the position of the modern Church that presumes these littles ones are dead and discourages Baptism, without considering the possibility that the soul remains for a time after birth, does preclude and hinder them from the opportunity of coming to Him through Baptism.

Catholic Church’s Teaching on Baptism

The CCC 1257 also strongly asserts that “The Lord Himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation…the Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from our Lord.”

The Baltimore Catechism #3, Q. 631 states that “Baptism is necessary to salvation, because without it we cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven.”  God in His justice has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism.  Baptism is so necessary to salvation to satisfy God’s justice regarding Original Sin that it would be best not to neglect it, by it we may trust in the boundless Mercy of God.  In God’s simplicity we cannot separate God’s Justice from His Mercy, we cannot presume to have God’s mercy without satisfying His justice.

The Catholic encyclopedia citing the Council of Trent in the section entitled “Nature of Original Sin” states:

"Original sin is described not only as the death of the soul (Sess. V, can. ii), but as a ‘privation of justice that each child contracts at its conception’ (Sess. VI, cap. iii). But the Council calls ‘justice’ what we call sanctifying grace (Sess. VI), and as each child should have had personally his own justice so now after the fall he suffers his own privation of justice."

Baptism, through sanctifying grace, restores this justice and holiness in the soul of the baby providing it with the salvation of Heaven. The acts of Baptism, conditional Baptism or Baptism of desire satisfy the justice of God. Because we did our part in attempting to remit our baby’s Original Sin, we may trust that, in His mercy, He will bring our babies to Heaven, avoiding Limbo.  Analogously, when we do our part and satisfy God’s justice by availing ourselves of the sacrament of Penance to remit our sins, we trust that, in His mercy, our sins are forgiven.

Role of Parents in the Baptism of their Miscarried and Stillborn Babies

At conception, we became parents, “nurturers of the life that God has entrusted” to us. (CCC 1251) As Christian parents, we recognize that Baptism is an integral part of that responsibility.  We are well aware that the Church urges us not to “prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism.”(CCC 1261) If the baby was born at term we would have had our sweet baby baptized at the Baptismal font at Church to give our baby the priceless grace of salvation.

Sadly, there are times when a Church Baptism is not possible for our babies.  However, in His goodness and mercy, God affords every opportunity for its reception, as evident in the 1917 Code of Canon Law.  The Catechism also provides that in cases of necessity, as in miscarriage or stillbirth, the Church not only allows, but traditionally demands, the parents, midwife, doctor, anyone, even non-believers with the intent to do what the Church wills in Baptism, to baptize. (CCC 1256)  In this day in age, when the midwives are no longer trained to Baptize nor are doctors, and time is of the essence, the responsibility falls on the parents to Baptize the little one at home or in the hospital. 

Baptizing Miscarried or Stillborn Babies

The act of Baptism is completed by running water over the baby’s head using the Trinitarian baptismal formula, “I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” (CCC 1256)

A baby who is stillborn and large enough may be baptized by running water over the baby’s head making the act of conditional Baptism.  In cases of early miscarriage, depending upon the stage of your pregnancy, be vigilant for the baby or mass containing the baby or the embryo to pass.  Once you have made the determination that you have passed the baby or the embryo, you may immerse the little one in water, and gently move the water over the baby making the act of conditional Baptism by saying, “If you are capable of being baptized, I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”  

The earlier the stage of pregnancy, the more difficult it will be to locate the baby especially in its embryonic stage, 3-8 weeks.  Please do not feel guilty or be distressed if you are not able to determine the embryo of your baby.  If signs of a miscarriage should threaten in this early stage, please do not hesitate to baptize the baby while still in the womb. If you are able, and certain you have passed the embryo or fetus, you may again baptize the baby conditionally as mentioned above, in case the soul has not left the body.

Those moments after a loss are so difficult in so many ways.  However, the simple act of Baptism of desire for your baby while the baby is still enclosed in the womb, and/or conditional Baptism shortly after the miscarriage or stillbirth, may bring about the “fruits of Baptism”. (CCC 1258)  This affords parents great hope that they did everything they could spiritually for the salvation of their baby, even when they feel helpless to do anything temporally for the little one in those moments. 

Our ultimate duty as parents is to raise our children for Heaven.  What better way to send off our miscarried or stillborn children back to Our Lord, than by making the act of Baptism for them, either absolutely, conditionally, or of desire, depending upon the circumstances of the loss.  

Baptism of Desire for Past Losses

For teachings on Baptism of Desire we turn to the Baltimore Catechism #3:

Q. 650. What is Baptism of desire?

Baptism of desire is an ardent wish to receive Baptism, and to do all that God has ordained for our salvation.

By virtue of our parental authority we may ardently desire Baptism for our miscarried and stillborn babies for their salvation.

Q. 654. How do we know that the baptism of desire or of blood will save us when it is impossible to receive the baptism of water?

We know that baptism of desire or of blood will save us when it is impossible to receive the baptism of water, from Holy Scripture, which teaches that love of God and perfect contrition can secure the remission of sins; and also that Our Lord promises salvation to those who lay down their life for His sake or for His teaching. (emphasis added)

CCC 1258 affirms:

[T]he desire for Baptism, brings about the fruits of Baptism without being a sacrament. (bolded emphasis added.)

For those who did not know or did not have the opportunity to baptize your miscarried or stillborn babies, this article, wholeheartedly, is not intended to lay any guilt upon your grieving heart.  This article is meant to bring hope and peace to the hearts of parents of miscarriage and stillborn babies.

The practice of baptizing miscarried or stillborn babies is not widely known or encouraged, and even discouraged in our modern Church, and by modern Churchmen.  God knows your heart and your intention to have your baby baptized.  He does not demand the impossible of you if you did not know and perhaps you were even told you could not baptize your “dead” miscarried or stillborn baby.  You are not at fault. 

So, although it may have been many years ago, you are free to make an act of Baptism of desire for your child.  God is omniscient and is not constrained by time. Further, “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but He Himself is not bound by His sacraments.” (CCC 1257) As long as we do our part in making an act of Baptism of desire in our hearts for our babies, we can hope in God for the rest, regardless of how much time has passed.

After Baptism - Name your Baby, Remember Your Baby, Bury Your Baby and Churching for Mom

The main focus of this article is to bring awareness to and encourage the Baptism for miscarried and stillborn babies.  However, it would be lacking if it did not touch upon some practical considerations of what to do after your baby has been baptized.  Most of this information is outside the scope of this article and could be a topic for another.  However, several matters are worth addressing without going into much detail.  These do not have to be done in order.

Name Your Baby and Memorialize Your Baby

Remember the joy you felt at the news of the new life growing and developing and all the excitement you had in anticipation of this baby’s arrival. God has entrusted you with a beautiful new soul that He knew would not live long past conception.  Now you have given that baptized soul back to Him. 

Though our hearts break and we grieve our loss, we hope that our baby is no longer a little one, but has been given a glorified body in Heaven.  We cannot know for sure, of course, and the intention is not to canonize these babies as saints, or to call them a Saint. However, Baptism gives us the great hope of salvation for our babies. 

Please acknowledge the beautiful life of your baby that began at conception by naming your baby. Whether the loss happened a week ago or 30 years ago, please name your baby.  It is very healing and comforting and provides closure. 

Now that the baby has a name, as best you can, record the date of the baby’s passing and Baptism, which will probably be on the same day, and honor the memory of that sweet little one.

Burying Your Baby

You have a right to your baby’s remains.

One thing you must know is that you have a right to your baby’s remains, even when the baby passes at a hospital, or your miscarriage requires a D&C.  Make sure you alert your doctors and nurses before any procedure or delivery of the baby that you want the baby’s remains.  Otherwise, the typical practice at hospitals, at least in the United States, is simply to incinerate the remains. 

Contact a funeral home and cemetery

For various reasons that are beyond the scope of this article, it is not advisable to bury a baby’s remains in your yard.  The good news is many funeral homes will assist at no charge or at a discounted rate – it is rare to find a funeral home who will not help. 

Many Catholic cemeteries also have sites dedicated to miscarried and stillborn babies.  Call the cemetery and ask for a plot for a seven-inch casket for fetal remains.  Be clear about “fetal remains” as burying infants means something different to the cemetery and requires a larger plot, casket, and different arrangements. 

Rite of Christian Burial

It is a blessing to have the opportunity to bury the body of your little one in consecrated ground.  The Rite of Christian Burial is a beautiful final way to care for the body of your precious little baby.  Committing your baby to his/her final resting place with a grave marker provides closure for you and your family and a place for you to visit as you heal and grieve.  Contact your priest to make arrangements for the graveside service for your baby.

A note on early loss: For a burial to take place in a cemetery, there must be a body to bury, or at least you must be sure of the remains.  Now, the sad reality is that in very early pregnancy loss, before a heartbeat is seen on an ultrasound, it is possible that you might not be able to identify the embryonic remains of the baby once the miscarriage occurs.  These very early losses also happen very frequently, unfortunately.  For practical purposes and the emotional health of the mother, it would not be advisable to go to the cemetery and have a funeral for every one of these losses. 

While it is possible for you to baptize the baby in the womb at the earliest signs of miscarriage, name the baby, and estimate a date, or at least the month/year of loss, the physical remains might not be perceptible.  In this situation, there has been medical evidence that after conception the embryo of the baby may have actually resorbed into the body of the mother, and that is why we cannot discern the embryo.  A miscarriage kit from your obstetrician can be helpful, but we can only do the best we can in making this determination.  Remember God knows your heart and you can trust Him to tenderly care for the body of your little one even if you cannot determine where your baby’s body is. 

If there is a body, a mass containing the baby, or if you are fortunate to find the embryo to bury, then by all means, after Baptism, make arrangements for a Christian Burial for your baby.

Churching Ceremony

After the emergency is over, you have Baptized, named your baby, and mom is feeling well enough, it would be salutary to ask a priest to give you a priestly blessing in the Churching ritual.  This ritual allows you give thanks to God for the new soul that God has entrusted to you and you were able to bear for Him. God will pour abundant graces upon you that will help immensely with healing your grief.

Why I Wrote This Article

I’m not a theologian, philosopher, canon lawyer, or expert by any means.  I’m just a mom with a law degree who has many living children and has lost four babies.  I mention the law degree because it gave me the courage, with the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, to confront this challenging issue involving Canon law.

In Pre-Cana we are asked to be open to life; however, we are not warned that when you are open to life, you must also be open to loss. Sadly, many moms are not prepared when their loss happens, and they are left stunned and broken with nowhere to turn.  

Early on, when I first began having children, I came across this article from 1959 by Alana M. Rosshirt,  How to Baptize in Case of Miscarriage.  I thank God for placing this article before me, because I was prepared when I experienced my multiple miscarriages. With shaky hands and tearful eyes, I gently moved the mass that my baby was enclosed in, immersed in water, uttering the words "If you are capable of being baptized, I baptize thee in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost" and then prayed to the Blessed Mother to bring him/her to Heaven.  I have always consecrated my babies to the Blessed Mother as soon I found out I had conceived. 

By virtue of my miscarried babies’ Baptism, albeit conditional or of desire, I have a great hope that my four littles ones may be in Heaven.  Being able to confer the conditional Baptism and Baptism of desire upon my babies has been a great source of comfort and healing to me, because I was able to do something spiritually for the salvation of my babies, when I was completely helpless to do anything to help them temporally.  I want to inform other moms and dads of the procedure for baptizing their miscarried and stillborn babies that they may also experience the peace and consolation conferring the sacrament upon their babies can bring.

Also, I have been blessed by good traditional priests of the Church who, pastorally, encouraged and supported me in baptizing by miscarried babies. Perhaps God was preparing me all along with all of my experiences to write this article.

Thus, my goal in writing this article is three-fold:

  1. 1. To give parents the preparation they need to deal with loss when it happens.
  2. 2. To inform bishops, priests and parents that Baptism of the miscarried and stillborn has traditionally been required by the Church and the Church did not err in doing so.  We should not let that fall by the wayside as it seems the modern Church has done.  
  3. 3. To encourage bishops and priests to study the traditional teachings of the Church on this matter in order to bring more souls to Heaven and be more pastoral toward grieving parents.

The ultimate mission of the Church is to save souls.  The Church, rightfully, affirms the personhood of a baby from the moment of conception. That being so, the baby is also entitled to the salvation of Baptism.  We have a tremendous opportunity here to help the Church in her mission by encouraging the Baptism of miscarried and stillborn souls.  While we cannot declare these babies saints and say for sure that they are in Heaven, performing an act of conditional Baptism or Baptism of desire for your baby can give parents great hope of their baby’s salvation.

Thank you for reading my article.  My hope is the priests reading will begin to encourage Baptism for the miscarried and stillborn (at least not discourage it), and the parents reading have been inspired to make an act of Baptism – absolute, conditional or of desire – for their baby if they should experience a miscarriage or stillbirth, no matter how early; or submit their desire of Baptism to God, if they were not able to do so, for the dear babies they have lost in the past.  Then, trust in His omniscience and infinite mercy that, through the intercession of the Mother of the Unborn, all our precious babies are sharing in the eternal happiness of Heaven.

Published on February 18, 2020, the traditional feast day of St. Bernadette, whose intercession I sought while writing this article when I came across her quote, My job is to inform, not convince," at the outset.