Last week, a US appeals court declared unconstitutional an Indiana law signed by then-Governor, now Vice President, Mike Pence, that requires fetuses to be buried or cremated. This comes as Texas passed a law last year saying all fetal remains had to be buried or cremated, and also banned donation of that tissue for research purposes. In January, US District Judge David Alan Ezra temporarily halted the fetal remains law, but Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has vowed to continue fighting for it. For more, we speak with Blake Norton, who had a miscarriage in 2015 at the Seton Medical Center in Austin, Texas, and was forced to choose whether she would let the hospital bury the remains in a shared grave, or arrange for a “private burial” at her own expense. We’re also joined by Texas Observer reporter Sophie Novack, whose cover story about Blake Norton is headlined “Indoctrinated: A Catholic hospital in Austin forces patients who miscarry to consent to fetal burials.” For one woman, that made a painful loss even worse — and she worries it could soon become routine across Texas.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. We turn now to the increasing number of women who have suffered a miscarriage and are then forced by their Catholic health provider to bury the fetal remains. Last week, a U.S. appeals court declared unconstitutional an Indiana law signed by then-Governor, now Vice President, Mike Pence, that requires fetuses to be buried or cremated. This comes as Texas passed a law last year saying all fetal remains had to be buried or cremated, and also banned donation of that tissue for research purposes. While supporters say the policies are meant to deter women from having abortions, the requirements also impact women who have miscarriages. Texas state Representative Donna Howard, who’s also a nurse, spoke out against the measure on the Texas House floor.
REP. DONNA HOWARD: I want you to know that my daughter was retraumatized. She was already devastated by the miscarriage, and then had to be retraumatized by this coercion of how the provider chose, not how my daughter chose, but how the provider chose to dispose of the fetal remains.
AMY GOODMAN: In January, U.S. District Judge David Alan Ezra temporarily halted the fetal remains law, but Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has vowed to continue fighting for it. Meanwhile, in Indiana, the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a similar fetal burial rule that was signed into law by then-Indiana Governor, now Vice President, Mike Pence.
For more, we go to Austin, Texas, where we’re joined by the woman who’s the daughter of the representative, Howard, just referred to in her speech, opposing a law requiring fetal burial. Blake Norton had a miscarriage in 2015 at the Seton Medical Center in Austin and was forced to choose whether she would let the hospital bury the remains in a shared grave, or arrange for a “private burial” at her own expense. She’s the subject of the cover story in this month’s Texas Observer by Sophie Novack, who also joins us. Her report is headlined “Indoctrinated: A Catholic hospital in Austin forces patients who miscarry to consent to fetal burials. For one woman, that made a painful loss even worse — and she worries it could soon become routine across Texas.” Also with us, from Boston, is Amy Littlefield, investigative reporter for Rewire.News, where she has reported extensively on the growing impact of Catholic hospitals on access to reproductive healthcare. She’s also a former producer here at Democracy Now!
We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with Blake Norton. If you can tell us your story?
BLAKE NORTON: Sure. I want to say thank you for Sophie, in writing the article, and for you, Amy, and Democracy Now!, in giving me an opportunity to share just, you know, one woman’s story.
In three years ago, almost to the day, I found out I was pregnant for the first time and was overjoyed. And it was at my 11-week routine ultrasound that I found out that two weeks earlier the fetus was — no longer had a heartbeat. And I had never experienced a loss like that. And it’s hard to put into words what that experience feels like. And we don’t talk a lot about miscarriage, and so I think that for someone who hasn’t been through it, people don’t understand quite what that feels like. And I think it’s also really important for me to say that my experience is mine alone, and there are similarities, of course, with other women who have been through miscarriage, but what I think is really important about this is that it’s — because there are so many variations on an experience with a loss like this. And for me, when I found out that I had miscarried, I really was floored. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t think straight. I hadn’t — I had never experienced anything like that. And I didn’t understand at the time what my options really were.
And it was one day later that I was in the hospital. I hadn’t even had 24 hours to process the news, when I was at the hospital that my doctor chose, because it was where my doctor had admitting privileges. Through the conversation with my doctor and the prescreening with the hospital the day before, nobody mentioned that this burial policy was a part of their requirements. And so it was only at the moment that I was already connected to IVs and about to be wheeled into surgery that I was presented with this one final piece of paper that outlined these two options. And the options were, I could allow Seton to provide a mass grave burial with Catholic rites, or I could take responsibility for the remains, and they would be given to me after I had secured my own funeral. You aren’t just given the remains. You have to secure something, and then the hospital will release them to you. And at the moment, those options both seemed terrifying.
And I think, in my experience, a lot of people struggle to understand: Well, why wouldn’t I want something like that? And I think the simplest answer is, in that moment of my personal grief, neither one of those options felt like they were honoring any part of my experience. I didn’t yet know how to comprehend what I was going through. And having either of these options forced on me was really horrific. And I was given the option of speaking with a chaplain, which I didn’t want to do, or speaking with a social worker. And the outcome of those conversations was simply, “Well, this is what you have to do if you want to continue with this procedure.”
And I, at that point, felt like I needed to have the procedure done. I didn’t feel like I could go back home, you know, and not have completed this surgical procedure. So I didn’t really feel like I had an option, and, in that moment, elected for what felt like it was going to be the least painful of the two, which was to allow for an anonymous burial that Seton would be responsible for and that I would not have to be notified about, so that I could go on with my life and grieving my loss in my own way, in the way that made sense to me and to my husband. And it was then, of course, when I had the opportunity to share my story for this article, that I was revisiting a lot of this. And, Sophie, I’m sure you can share more about the things that you uncovered.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Sophie Novack, you did this piece for The Texas Observer. Tell us what you found out about the miscarried fetus of Blake Norton.
SOPHIE NOVACK: Sure. So, a little bit of context first is that, you know, I had been following the law that was passed in Texas last session which would require the burial or cremation of all fetal remains from abortions and miscarriages that occur in medical facilities. And so that was kind of the backdrop for this. And then I heard, very briefly, Representative Donna Howard, Blake’s mom, mention her daughter’s experience. And I kind of — you know, my ear perked up, and I said, “Hang on. This isn’t the law yet. What happened here?” And after meeting with Blake and with Representative Howard, you know, got basically Blake’s experience, and then it was my job to kind of fit that into what was going on here. So, discovered that it is a Seton Family policy, which means that all of the Seton hospitals in the Austin area have this policy. It’s the biggest acute and surgical medical center in Austin. And —
AMY GOODMAN: And it’s a Catholic hospital?
SOPHIE NOVACK: It’s a Catholic hospital, and it’s part of the world’s largest Catholic hospital system. And so, I discovered that this is — this is a policy that many, many women are experiencing, and that, in fact, it actually goes back at least 10 years that Seton has been doing this.
And so, in looking into that, I spoke with some doctors at the hospital and discovered that there are a lot of folks that work at the hospital that really don’t agree with this policy, because they’ve seen how it has impacted their patients, that it causes a lot of distress, either because it is against the religious beliefs of the patient or just against the patient’s personal wishes, like in Blake’s case.
And so, I talked to some doctors, got a hold of the copy of the policy, and kind of have been digging into this, discovered where I believed Seton was sending the fetal remains to be buried, which was at Assumption Cemetery, a cemetery in South Austin, visited there. And this was particularly shocking to me. Went into the office and asked where I would find, you know, where the fetal remains from Seton are buried, and was asked what the mother’s name is. And so, kind of hesitated and gave them Blake’s name, and they directed me to the grave where the remains of Blake’s pregnancy were buried. And that was —
AMY GOODMAN: Was it an individual grave?
SOPHIE NOVACK: It’s not. It’s a shared grave. And so, every few months, Seton sends the remains of all of the miscarriages that occurred in that time period together to the cemetery, and they are blessed — they are, excuse me, they are buried in one plot and blessed by a chaplain at the Catholic cemetery.
AMY GOODMAN: And is there some kind of marker there?
SOPHIE NOVACK: And this was — there is. There are markers on each grave. They’re kind of lined up in a row, and each of the markers says “baby angels” on it and the date that those remains were buried. And then they each have different quotes or things engraved in them. And it is a Catholic cemetery. Folks are leaving ornaments on them, like crosses. On the burial that marks — excuse me, the marker that marks where these remains are buried, it has the Virgin Mary etched into the stone.
AMY GOODMAN: Blake Norton, when you learned this from Sophie, what was your reaction?
BLAKE NORTON: Well, I was shocked. Of course, you know, my understanding had been that this was going to be anonymous. And, you know, Sophie was really kind in how she approached me about it. She knew that I had not wanted to be further notified about where these remains were taken, and at the same time, once she had the information, of course, wanted me to be able to access it, if I wanted. And so, I think, for me, it was pretty horrifying, first of all, just to feel like my privacy had been so violated, that my name was now tied with this burial site.
And I think, you know, it’s really hard for me to explain why — to people who believe that this is the way that you honor loss, I think it’s hard for me to explain why this feels so violating to me. And so, I think one thing that’s helpful is to remember that one way, just one way, that people cope with miscarriage is by being able to remind ourselves that this is just tissue, that this was not compatible with life, that this was a pregnancy loss, not a baby. And that’s one way. Many other women find comfort in being able to grieve the loss of their baby, and identify themselves as mothers and are comforted to know that graves like this exist. And I want women like that to have that option. I think that every person who experiences a pregnancy loss, for any reason, should have options that are in line with how they need to cope.
And I think, for me, this has continued to stir up my own trauma from the experience, because part of how I was able to go on and get pregnant again was by reminding myself that this was just a pregnancy loss, I didn’t lose a baby. That was my way of being able to get through that experience. And so, I think part of why this has been so hard for me is that it’s continued to force this idea on me of how I’m supposed to think about this pregnancy loss, that I’m supposed to identify with that tissue as a mother, that I’m supposed to think about it as a living, breathing baby. And again, it’s like I want women to have that right and that option and to be treated with dignity and respect if that’s how they choose to grieve, and I also want room and space and compassion for grieving in my own way.
SOPHIE NOVACK: And just to add onto that, really quickly, if I may, just a little bit of context is that that is, in fact, an option for women in Texas already. There was a law passed in 2015 that allows — that allows patients to take the remains of a pregnancy, after they’ve miscarried, from a hospital to arrange a burial, if they choose to do so. So that option does already exist for patients. This new law would basically take that choice away from women, from families, from patients, that are not interested in that.
AMY GOODMAN: And just to be clear, Sophie Novack, miscarriage rates, what, something like 15, 20 percent of all pregnant women?
SOPHIE NOVACK: That’s right. And I’ll also add that the majority of miscarriages do occur before 20 weeks, which is where this Seton policy comes into place. And so, in Texas, after 20 weeks, there are already regulations in place in terms of how the remains from pregnancies have to be disposed. And —
AMY GOODMAN: And what happens with abortions?
SOPHIE NOVACK: And those are in lines — I’m sorry?
AMY GOODMAN: And what happens with abortion?
SOPHIE NOVACK: Under current law?
AMY GOODMAN: Yes.
SOPHIE NOVACK: The law that was passed last year would require this policy for both miscarriages and abortions. That law is currently blocked in court, and there will be a trial this summer to determine whether it can move forward.