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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.

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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.

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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.

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