12.16.11

The Duggars' Photo of Their Stillborn Baby Ignites Debate

Who would take photographs of their dead baby daughter, and release them? Some have come to the defense of reality TV’s largest family, and Maria Elena Fernandez hears both sides of the dispute.

When TMZ posted photographs of Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar’s stillborn daughter, distributed at the baby’s memorial in Arkansas, most people wondered two things: Who would take photographs of their dead child? And who on earth would release them?

The answer to both of those questions is the Duggars, stars of TLC’s reality series, 19 Kids and Counting. The controversy began Wednesday, a week after they learned their baby’s heart had stopped beating. A relative of the Duggars tweeted two black-and-white photographs: one of Michelle holding baby Jubilee Shalom’s tiny hand, and one of the baby’s feet inscribed with the message, “There is no foot too small that it cannot leave an imprint on this world.” The family member later deleted the tweet, but not before TMZ posted the images, setting off a firestorm of criticism toward the Duggars for turning what many think should have been a private moment of grief into a public spectacle.

A family spokesperson defended the couple, saying they never intended for the photographs to be released to the public. But on Thursday night, the picture of Michelle holding her stillborn daughter’s little hand was front and center on the family’s website, along with the audio of a letter she wrote to Jubilee that was played at the memorial.

“It just seems too public and almost seems like, ‘OK, we’re stars, everybody wants to know abut us,’” said Susan Newman, a social psychologist who has taken the Duggars to task for continuing to procreate in two columns for Psychology Today. “From what I know of parents who have lost children, it’s horrific. It’s not something you want pictures of. There are people who will argue with me and say it’s a way of coming to terms with the death. But given the Duggars’ history, their television show, and the way they exploit their children, I just find this a cog in the same wheel. I find it rather distasteful.”

The sad turn in the lives of the largest reality TV family came a month after Michelle and Jim Bob, their 19 kids, and two grandchildren, all appeared on the Today show to announce that they were expecting a baby, due in April. The news that the family was expanding was met with a lot of ire, particularly because 45-year-old Michelle’s last pregnancy threatened her life and was only saved by the premature birth of her daughter, Josie, who weighed 1 pound and 6 ounces and was in critical condition for a long time.

But the co-founder of the non-profit organization that photographed the stillborn baby at the Duggars’ request said that thousands of grieving parents have turned to the group for its free services.

The Duggars, through TLC, declined to be interviewed by The Daily Beast, but Michelle told People magazine that she learned during a routine check-up on Dec. 9 that her baby had no heartbeat and then she miscarried on Dec. 11. People also detailed the memorial service in an article that quoted Michelle saying: "I feel a great sorrow and grief, and yet at the same time I have a peace in my heart. This is so sad, but I have peace. There are people praying for us and angels surrounding our home, and there was peace in the sorrow and the grief. Those feelings are mingled together."

TLC also declined to comment about the memorial, calling it “a very private matter.” Further inquiries about the network’s relationship with the Duggars, which began in 2003 when they were featured in a series of Discovery Health Channel specials about some of the births, were ignored. The reality show, 17 Kids and Counting, launched in 2008.

“As a mother, you need to consider your other children and you need to be there for them,” Newman said. “Frankly, I was amazed that she would risk being pregnant yet again. But given that, most parents who lose a fetus or an infant or a young child grieve privately. You’re entitled to grieve any way you want. It just seems that the Duggars consider themselves celebrities and it’s sensationalistic to me.”

But the cofounder of the nonprofit organization that photographed the stillborn baby at the Duggars’ request said that thousands of grieving parents have turned to the group for its free services, because the photographs help to console them during the worst time of their lives. Cheryl Haggard, who had a son who died after birth because of a condition that went undetected during pregnancy, cofounded Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep with a photographer she hired.

“I had photographs of my son, Maddox, that I had taken in the hospital with my digital camera and he was a little jaundiced and he had tubes and wires and the bright orange tape on his mouth, holding the wires in,” Haggard said. “And to me, that was the reality that I lived. I see those images and I experience the sadness and that stressful time for us. But when I look at the black-and-white images that [a photographer] took, they are softer, more classic. Those are images I can show without feeling apprehensive. What happened to us was a complete shock, and those pictures bring me a lot of comfort.”

Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep, which uses a network of volunteer photographers to work with grieving families, was formed in April 2005, two months after Maddox died. Those who criticize the Duggars, Haggard said, cannot empathize with their pain and disappointment.

“The death of a child—no matter what gestation or age—you wouldn’t wish on anybody,” Haggard said. “And I think unless you’ve experienced the death of child in utero or out, it’s devastating at any age. I’ve read some of the things that people have commented about the Duggars and some of it is so mean. It’s a shame that in the society we live in, there’s no understanding. Unless you’ve walked in a bereaved parent’s shoes, you have no idea what you would need or what you would want or what could help you. It doesn’t matter if you have one child or 20 children, the loss of a child is devastating.”

In the audio message to Jubilee, Michelle outlined all of the things she will miss not doing with her and said that, from now on, she will say she has “19 children here and one in heaven.” Considering what Michelle and Jim Bob told NBC’s Ann Curry last month, it’s likely they will try to expand their family again. They have nine daughters and 10 sons, ages 2 to 23, including two sets of fraternal twins.

“We always have a motto around our house—there’s always room for one more,” Michelle said in the Nov. 8 telecast. “And they are such a gift. We are so grateful for each one of them … We will love however many the Lord sees fit to give us.”

“We didn’t want to stop at an odd number,” her husband added.