Image: AP

The Texas Observer has published a gruesome story about fetal burials, a practice mandated by many Catholic hospitals and, if Republican lawmakers have their way, state governments: A woman named Blake Norton, after miscarrying in 2015, was treated at Seton Medical Center Austin at the recommendation of her OB-GYN, not knowing it was part of the biggest Catholic health system in the world.

In a report by Sophie Novak, Norton recounted that she was handed a paper as she was being wheeled to surgery, and on it she had to demarcate a burial for the fetal remains of her 11-week pregnancy. Either the hospital would do it, or she could do it privately. There was no other choice:

Could she opt out of having a burial? Norton asked. The nurse shook her head, and sent a social worker to speak with her. “I don’t understand, why do I not have a choice?” Norton asked, increasingly upset. What had been a medical procedure suddenly felt like a religious rite, compounding the grief she was only beginning to process. The social worker reiterated that she could choose between the two burial options. Norton elected to leave it to Seton and opted not to be notified when the burial occurred. Where the form required her to specify her relationship to the remains, Norton said she had no choice but to write “mother.”

“At that point, my only alternative would have been to disconnect the IVs and walk out and have to figure out how to deal with the missed miscarriage some other way,” she said.

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Norton’s story is receiving particular attention because she is the daughter of Democratic representative Donna Howard, who has been battling this issue in the Texas Legislature, where burial or cremation has been made mandatory for all fetal remains regardless of gestation period. There was already a requirement in place for remains over 20 weeks, but the new law wasn’t passed until a year after Norton’s experience with Seton; it is temporarily blocked, pending a legal review.

While fighting the bill during the 2017 legislative session, Howard shared her daughter’s experience in an effort to add an amendment that allowed exemption for those with “sincerely held religious beliefs that conflict with the burial requirement.”

“I want you to know that my daughter … already devastated by her miscarriage, was re-traumatized by this coercion of how her provider chose — not how my daughter chose, how the provider chose — to dispose of the fetal remains.”

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Seton is an extreme example of where the fetal remains law could lead. Their definition of “perinatal loss specimens” is broad enough to include pregnancies that are just a few days along, and the imposition of their practices is astounding. Novak visited the graveyard where Seton buries the remains, and was able to share Norton’s name with a guard and receive a map with directions to the gravesite of Norton’s miscarriage. When informed of this, Norton was shocked, saying she never consented to it.

In the piece, Norton said she wants to be clear that her story is not unique, and may soon be the norm. She recognizes that it’s her mother’s position that is allowing her to be heard now, years later.

“It’s one story and one example of the ways in which these kinds of regulations are punishing and dehumanizing women, particularly women of color, and particularly women who don’t have access to financial resources. I had a lot of resources and privilege, and even with all that, I felt completely voiceless and disempowered.”

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Read the full report here.