Meet the parents who lost their triplets 15 years ago and inspired the case for parents to bury a foetus
Durban - Nearly 16 years ago, a kind-hearted hospital official scratched the remains of stillborn triplets out among medical waste in an incinerator moments before they were due to be burnt as mere waste.
The woman who sent the official on that heartbreaking task set in motion and scored a victory this week for millions of South African parents who will now be able to bury their stillborn children who were yet to reach the gestation age of 26 weeks.
Sonja Smith, of Sonja Smith Funerals and founder of the Voice of the Unborn Baby organisation, fought for years to obtain justice for what many regard as a mere foetus. But for her, it is a human being.
The Gauteng High Court, Pretoria, this week ruled in favour of Smith’s organisation and ordered that some provisions of the Births and Deaths Registration Act had to change to allow parents to bury the remains of a miscarriage under 26 weeks.
As this was a Constitutional challenge against the law, the Constitutional Court has to endorse the ruling before it came into effect.
The court, however, did not grant an order relating to the burial of foetal remains in cases of medical intervention such as an abortion.
The judge said institutions did not have the infrastructure to cater for that.
Smith’s reason for fighting tooth and nail for the law to change is because the plight of the triplets’ parents haunted her all these years.
While Smith was battling to obtain justice based on their trauma, Sanet and Cobus Potgieter were none the wiser.
It was only after Smith eventually managed to get hold of them last year, nearly 15 years later, and told them about the legal challenge, that they became aware of it.
They learnt about this week’s court victory when they read it in the media.
The three reunited on Thursday for the first time since Smith managed to get hold of the little bodies of the triplet sisters in 2005 and took care of the funeral arrangements on behalf of the Potgieters.
Cobus recalled that there were complications with his wife’s pregnancy 16 years ago, and the triplets were stillborn at about 25 weeks. To get closure, they wanted to bury the remains and contacted Smith.
“I assumed it would be a mere formality to get the bodies as the matron had said we could arrange the burial. I never knew it would be such an uphill battle.”
The Potgieters and Smith were unaware of the law restrictions at that stage. Following a fierce battle by Smith, of which the couple were oblivious, they eventually received the bodies and cremated them.
The remains are in a wall of remembrance.
Cobus said he was glad that they did not know about the fight over the bodies as they were extremely traumatised by the deaths of their firstborns at the time.
Sanet said she was glad she got to bury the remains of her children.
“At the time, you do not think of the grieving process, but the cremation was the start of it and it makes the loss more true. We may not have spent time with them, but there were bodies and they were our children and had to be celebrated. It was not only closure for us, but for our entire family who prepared for the triplets.”
Smith said that after she was asked to perform the rituals on behalf of the Potgieters, she headed to hospital with a carrycot to fetch the remains.
“At the hospital, they told me they were not there; that they had already left in the truck carrying medical waste to the incinerator.
"I asked how that could be, as the grieving parents wanted to hold a service and say their goodbyes. I did not take no for an answer and insisted on the remains.”
A sympathetic official eventually searched among the waste and found the bodies. “At least I could give them a dignified send-off.”
Smith said it haunted her for years and she did research and tried to get answers. She could not let it rest and eventually challenged the law after she established Voice of the Unborn Baby in 2015.
She said it was a grey area. Some doctors were not sure if a foetus more than 26 weeks old could be buried, while others relies on the weight.
But she is grateful for the order as there are many more parents who will benefit.