Giving Birth on a Plane or in International Waters

Birth Plane International Waters

If you’re planning a trip during or close to your third trimester, there are a few questions to consider. First, how late into your third trimester will an airline or ship allow you to travel? And, what happens if you unexpectedly give birth while over international waters? While it’s rare to go into labor on a plane—or on a boat—it does happen and travel policies take that possibility into consideration.

Because women can unexpectedly go into labor before their due date, most domestic airlines only allow a pregnant woman to fly till 36 weeks, or 32 weeks if she is carrying twins. Some will require a fit-to-fly letter from a doctor or midwife after 28 weeks, while some restrict flying after 28 weeks. Flying is not recommended if you have any pregnancy complications, so be sure to check with your doctor before booking a trip.

Many cruise liners will also not permit you to travel if you are in your third trimester, with some limiting travel after 24 weeks on the day of disembarkation.

What happens if you are cleared to travel and still unexpectedly give birth while traversing international waters? The subject of citizenship can get complicated since a variety of national laws and international conventions govern how a child can be registered and what nationality that newborn can claim.

National laws about the right of citizenship usually either follow the principle of jus soli or jus sanguinis, or sometimes a combination of both in different circumstances. Jus soli is a Latin term based on English common law and means “birthright through soil.” If a country observes jus soli, that means anyone born there (or in the air above) can claim citizenship. If the country observes jus sanguinis, Latin for “right of blood,” the child’s birthright will be determined through that of his parents. A few countries may observe both in some situations, because they follow international agreements that govern the status of refugees.

In the US, the law follows the principle of jus soli. Anyone born on US soil, on a ship docked at a US, port or within US territorial waters is considered a citizen, unless they are specifically excluded, such as the children of diplomats stationed within the US. If a baby’s parents are both US citizens, that child has the right of citizenship, no matter where he or she is born. U.S. citizens who have a child in another country should register that child’s birth with the nearest US consulate.

Children born over Canada are also automatically Canadian citizens. If that child is born in a plane or boat registered in Canada, that can also be used as a reason to apply for Canadian citizenship.

Only 30 countries offer birthright citizenship. Some countries previously had birthright citizenship but abolished or qualified the requirements. The United Kingdom abolished jus soli in 1983. For a child to claim UK citizenship, one of the parents must have lived in the country legally. Even if you were born there, you have to apply for citizenship.

Most countries in Europe, Asia, and Africa do not observe jus soli and grant citizenship based on jus sanguinis, although some countries do grant a version of jus soli to immigrants, because they signed an international agreement to help refugees avoid being stateless. Countries  accepting the 1961 UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness grant nationality to otherwise stateless persons born on their territory, or on a ship or aircraft registered by that country.

About 40 countries, including Brazil, Costa Rica and Panama, recognize a birth on a ship or airplane that is registered in their country as being a birth on national soil. If a child is born in a plane or on a boat registered by that country, they may also be able to claim citizenship in that country.

How do you list the place of birth for a child born in or over international waters? The US State Department recommends listing their place of birth as “At Sea”, while those born in the territorial waters of a country would list the name of that country. A child that is born on a plane over waters that no country claims has to list their place of birth as “In Air,” which makes for an interesting birth certificate.

Giving birth on a plane or boat is such a rare occurrence, it probably won’t happen to you. If it does, rest assured that stewardesses are generally given midwifery training and cruise ships always have a doctor on board.

Joan MacDonald
Joan Vos MacDonald has written about health and fitness for newspapers, magazines and websites. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers and the author of two books on health-related topics, "Tobacco and Nicotine Dangers," for young adults, and "High Fit Home," a design book about fitness and architecture. She lives in upstate New York near her children and grandchildren.

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