Following the Supreme Court's decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, we are taking an in-depth look at how religious freedom is increasingly being distorted and exploited to justify discrimination against LGBT people, women, and others. This six-part series examines the resulting consequences through the firsthand accounts of those who have experienced it. You can read more from the series here.
I was 17 years old, married, a mother of beautiful twin girls, and 12 weeks into my second pregnancy when I woke up to a wet sticky feeling between my legs. I got up and there it was: a light pink discharge. I felt a sense of dread and panic and called for my husband. Off we rushed to the local hospital in our small Indiana town—a Catholic hospital—where I was checked into the ER. After a brief internal exam, I was informed I may be having a miscarriage. I was promptly sent home with instructions to rest, put my feet up, and return if I started bleeding.
The next morning, I began bleeding heavily.
When I returned to the ER, I was told that I was having a miscarriage, and that the embryo had stopped growing properly at eight or nine weeks. There was no chance the pregnancy would progress, but the fetus still had a heartbeat. So, despite my worsening condition, I was told to go home and wait.
I did not have a lot of money back then. I worked two low-paying jobs and was struggling as it was to take care of my two young children. I was certain I could not afford a third trip to the ER just to be sent home again. I took my discharge papers and just figured I’d just try to manage at home.
Later that afternoon, after hours in pain, my bleeding became very heavy.
I went into my bathroom hoping the pain would pass. I am pretty sure it was during that time I passed the embryo. After feeling a large amount of tissue pass my bleeding only became heavier, so heavy that I had put on one of my kids’ diapers to collect the blood, just so I could walk next-door to my mom’s and use the phone. I figured the bleeding would eventually slow down, you know like after giving birth or during a heavy period. I remember thinking if they sent me home twice, no reason to go again. I sat down in my mom’s kitchen to make my phone call. While I was on the phone, however, I suddenly fell to the cold, hard kitchen floor. It felt like I was in a dark tunnel, but I could hear my husband yelling in terror, “Laurie, wake up!”
I couldn’t move. I just felt cold. I could sense my family members around me as we waited for the ambulance to arrive—my husband, my toddler daughters, and my grandmother. But I couldn’t move. All I could do was try to hold on to my life while my daughters were crying in their play area, my husband yelled in panic and my grandmother yelling “call 9-1-1!”. All I could do was lay there feeling cold, somehow present, yet far away.
After EMS brought me back to consciousness, I knew I might be in real trouble because the paramedic I had was a neighbor who had treated me for asthma before. We had always laughed and joked in the past. But he was all business this time. Taking my vitals, asking me questions, keeping me awake—it’s a bit of a blur. Ultimately, there I was right back in that same ER, still cold, still bleeding while hospital workers tried and failed to start a second IV line for a blood transfusion.
One of my clearest memories from that day is when I heard the doctor scream, “Who the fuck sent her home? She could have died.”
I had to have emergency surgery to remove the remaining tissue from my uterus and save my life. The same OB-GYN who gave the order to send me home was still on call when I was brought back in.
I later found out that the doctors at the hospital were not allowed to provide me with the basic care I needed in order to prevent a life-threatening condition because of the facility’s religious affiliation. Someone in my situation should have been offered dilation and curettage—a procedure that removes tissue from the uterus—or another form of miscarriage management.
No doctor at my hospital told me that I would have to go to another facility to get the care I needed, and I ended up nearly dead on the table as a result.
Instead, I was denied care.
This is because dilation and curettage, also known as D&C, is a method of performing an abortion. At the time, I was staunchly anti-choice, and did not go to the hospital looking for an abortion. I wasn’t interested in ending my pregnancy—to the contrary, my husband and I wanted a healthy pregnancy. But when I found out the pregnancy was ending, I just wanted to get the care I needed. I wanted to be able to return home to my family and work so I could support my children. To this day I’m not sure I would have gotten the D&C I needed even on my third visit had I not passed the embryo in my bathroom alone and with no pain relief.
What if I had returned and there was still a heartbeat?
In the United States, Catholic hospitals are governed by the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services. These regulations were written by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, not doctors. These directives prohibit abortions—even during miscarriage and even when necessary to save a woman’s life. This is true even for ectopic pregnancies. When I went to the ER that second time, the doctors could tell that my pregnancy was not viable and that my life was potentially at risk, but that didn’t matter. Because the fetus still had a heartbeat, they were unable to care for me.
I now realize that I’m not alone in this treatment, or lack thereof. It’s estimated that one in six hospital beds in this country are at hospitals and facilities subjected to the Ethical and Religious Directives. For many people—myself included—that facility might be their closest hospital or the only one in their entire community.
What’s worse is that many people don’t realize that religious facilities have these harmful regulations in place. In fact, they might not even realize some facilities are religious at all. This is exactly what happened to me when I was 17: No doctor at my hospital told me that I would have to go to another facility to get the care I needed, and I ended up nearly dead on the table as a result.
This happened to me in Indiana over 20 years ago, but it still really threatens and endangers a lot of people in need of life-saving care all across the country to this day. And things are likely to get even worse: In January, the Trump administration proposed new rules that seek to allow health care institutions or employees to impose their religious beliefs on their patients, regardless of the harm it causes.
The White House proposed a gag rule to restrict family planning funding from clinics and hospitals that conduct or refer for abortion. We have yet to see how far reaching the impact will be.
Women of color are the most at risk as we are more likely to get pregnancy care from Catholic hospitals.
Religious freedom is absolutely important in our country. It’s something that should be protected, and people should be allowed to practice their faith, however they choose. But medical care should protect the life and health of the patient—not prioritize the beliefs of religious organizations, providers, or lawmakers with a political agenda.
This is, in the most literal sense, a matter of life and death.