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Burying Fetal Remains: Court Strikes Down Indiana Law Signed by Mike Pence

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According to reporting by Rewire.News, Catholic hospitals across the country are imposing dangerous and life-threatening mandates on their patients, including requiring fetal burial after a miscarriage and restricting access to contraception, abortion, fertility treatments and gender-affirming care for transgender patients. And now, right-wing politicians like Vice President Mike Pence are pushing to enshrine these dangerous practices into law. For more, we speak with Rewire investigative journalist Amy Littlefield.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Amy Littlefield into this conversation, with Rewire.News. You have looked at laws like this in other states, particularly in Indiana, particularly significant because it’s the state of the vice president, Pence, who was governor of Indiana. Can you talk about what happened there?

AMY LITTLEFIELD: Yes, absolutely. So, I just want to note also that this is a nationwide issue, that Catholic hospitals actually make up a growing share of the medical landscape. One in six hospital beds in this country are in a Catholic hospital. And we don’t just see coercive fetal burial practices, like were just described. We also see restrictions on a broad range of healthcare in those hospitals.

So, I looked at Indiana because it’s where Governor Pence, at the time, now our vice president, signed one of the most sweeping anti-choice laws ever seen in the United States. And among other provisions, it required burial or cremation of all aborted or miscarried remains. Just last week, a federal appeals court affirmed that that law was in fact unconstitutional. But it turned out that for years before Pence had signed that law, a Catholic hospital in the state had already been imposing religious beliefs on patients by coercing, bullying and shaming them into burying their miscarried fetuses in a shared plot, similar to what exists in Texas.

I think this is important, because I think there’s a pattern here, that we saw in Texas, that we also see in Indiana, where these Catholic hospitals impose their religious beliefs on patients, often causing great harm and trauma, or even putting lives at risk, in some cases, and then we see extremist politicians, like Pence and like the lawmakers in Texas, then enshrine these religious practices into law and sort of give it the blessing of law, and rather than interfering to protect patients in some of those cases.

So, I looked at the case of a woman named Kate Marshall, who, in 2015—it’s a story similar to Blake’s—she actually found out that she had lost her pregnancy at 11 weeks. The fetus no longer had a heartbeat. Her doctor scheduled surgery to remove the remains. And she scheduled it in this Catholic hospital. And so, Kate didn’t really have another option at that point. As she’s lying in her hospital bed, you know, naked under her hospital gown, hooked up to an IV, feeling vulnerable, grieving her pregnancy, a chaplain comes into the room and tries to pressure her to sign a form allowing this hospital to bury the fetus in a cemetery plot. Kate actually already had another plan. She and her doctor had decided to send her fetus’s remains for testing to find out what had caused her miscarriage, because what she wanted more than anything was to have a baby. And this was her way of doing that. And she explained that to the chaplain, but he didn’t think that was a valid reason for her to decline this burial program. And he kept pushing her. And she had to ask him to leave five times, before he finally did. And then another chaplain came into the room. And this chaplain, again, asked her to sign this form. And when Kate declined again, the chaplain told her that she would be sending her baby’s remains to a medical flush pile, if she fulfilled her wish to have this testing done.

AMY GOODMAN: She stood by her beliefs and did not sign?

AMY LITTLEFIELD: That’s right, she did. But, you know, as in the horrible case that Blake just described, it was a very traumatic experience for her. Her sister was in the room and remembers watching Kate sobbing, shaking, crying, devastated that not only had she just lost this much-wanted pregnancy, but then a chaplain had come in and used his religious beliefs and the hospital’s religious beliefs to shame her about her medical decision-making, which should have been her private choice. And that’s not the place where you want to be—shaking, sobbing, crying—as you’re being wheeled into surgery.

So, she did stand by her beliefs, and she was able to get the testing done. And then she was later able to get pregnant and carry that pregnancy to term. But as she was pregnant, about a year later, she watched as Mike Pence and the Indiana Legislature enacted this bill that, in her words, would have made what she experienced at this Catholic hospital into law and make it the law of the land and force it on everyone statewide. So, again, we see this pattern where these Catholic hospitals, instead of being checked, when they—by the state, with these, you know, abuses of patients under the guise of religion, where the state is actually empowering them and giving their behavior the blessing of law.

AMY GOODMAN: Amy, you wrote a piece headlined “Women of Color More Likely to Give Birth in Hospitals Where Catholic Beliefs Hinder Care.” How does that impact what we’re talking about today?

AMY LITTLEFIELD: Absolutely. So, I think this is a really important piece of the national conversation that’s going on right now around black maternal mortality. It turns out that women of color disproportionately bear the burden of these restrictions on Catholic healthcare.

Now, it’s worth noting that Catholic hospitals don’t just impose fetal burial on patients; they restrict access to contraception, abortion, end-of-life care, fertility treatments, gender-affirming care for trans patients. And because of the restrictions on abortion, oftentimes when women come in in the life-threatening process of losing a pregnancy, if that fetus still has a heartbeat, the Catholic hospital will not terminate the pregnancy in many cases, and this can lead to life-threatening and damaging scenarios for patients. So, we have to keep that in mind when we think about the fact that nationwide, 53 percent of births in Catholic hospitals are to women of color. In some states, that’s even more stark. In New Jersey, for example, 80 percent of births in Catholic hospitals are to women of color.

And when you—you know, if you go to the hospital, let’s say, in the process of losing a pregnancy and end up in this life-threatening situation where they’re not going to treat you—and I could give you an example that I reported on. So, I spoke with a doctor named Jessika Ralph in Wisconsin, which is one of five states in the country where 40 percent or more of hospital beds are Catholic. She worked in a hospital that was also part of Ascension network, the biggest nonprofit hospital system in the United States. And she treated a patient who was in the process of losing a twin pregnancy at 18 weeks. They knew that the pregnancy was doomed. One of the twins had been stillborn, but the other still had a heartbeat. And so, Jessika was placed in the position of having to sit and watch until this patient was sick enough that she could intervene to save her life, because under the hospital’s interpretation of the Catholic religious directives, unless that patient was running a fever or hemorrhaging or showing other signs of severe illness, she couldn’t help her. So, for 10 hours she had to wait, until this patient spiked a fever and was really sick, and then she could intervene. But her ability to provide adequate care, like the standard of care for medication or surgical procedures, was hindered by the Catholic beliefs at this hospital. She couldn’t offer surgery, because no doctors were trained to provide it. And she couldn’t offer medication that would help speed up the process, because the Catholic hospital didn’t carry it. So this patient ended up laboring for more than 24 hours and needing a blood transfusion. Meanwhile, if she had gone five miles away to Froedtert Hospital, she would have been able to have surgery and had those options presented to her right away.

The reason why I bring this up in this context is that this hospital where this patient was, St. Joseph, is in a primarily African-American neighborhood. So, you know, a lot of the patients who are just going to end up viewing that as their neighborhood hospital are black, and including this patient whose story I just described. So, you know, when we think about the way that this burden falls on people, it falls on the most marginalized patients. And women of color are disproportionately affected by that.

AMY GOODMAN: 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, Amy.

AMY LITTLEFIELD: Yes, that’s right. And I think an important piece of that, you know, we saw Mike Pence, when he was governor of Indiana, really impose religious views on the state, in more than one way. He signed this legislation that required fetal burial or cremation, effectively enshrining into law these extreme religious practices of Catholic hospitals. He also, you know, notoriously, signed this order empowering businesses in Indiana to discriminate against LGBTQ people, which caused a national outcry.

And now what we’re seeing is that the Trump-Pence administration, you know, with Pence at the helm of a lot of these religious policies, is enacting a lot of these extremist beliefs onto the national population, onto all of us. We saw that in January, for example, when the Trump-Pence administration, their Office of Health and Human Services, opened a new office of what they call religious freedom and conscience—what we at Rewire.News call an office of discrimination—where they’re basically welcoming any providers who have religious or moral objections to things like treating LGBTQ patients or providing reproductive health services, to bring their complaints to the Trump administration, because they want to hear them, and they want to stand by them. And they’re saying, “We’ve got your back.”

And so, I really think we have to be concerned about this theocratic record that Pence has in Indiana that we’re now seeing nationwide. I think we’re, unfortunately, with Pence at the helm, you know, marching closer and closer toward theocracy in this country. And I think it’s a real concern, especially when you hear people talking about impeachment.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all for being with us. We’ll continue to follow the story. We’ll link to your pieces, Amy, at Rewire.News. Amy Littlefield, investigative reporter with Rewire. I want to thank Sophie Novack with The Texas Observer. Also with us, Blake Norton. And I thank you all for being with us.

When we come back after 30 seconds, we’ll be speaking with Alejandra Pablos. She is a reproductive justice and immigrants’ rights activist who was detained by ICE and just released. Stay with us.

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