The perpetual outrage machine has found a new target: Catholic hospitals that respectfully bury babies who died from stillbirths and miscarriages. Instead of discarding their remains as medical waste, hospitals like Seton in Austin, Texas, offer parents the choice to have a burial in a group grave financially covered by the hospital or a private burial at the parents’ expense.
While many parents are thankful for these options to honor a time of grief and loss, others are upset about the idea of buring their miscarried baby’s body. In an article for the Observer, Blake Norton, a Texas mother who had a miscarriage at Seton, expressed her unhappiness with the idea of burying deceased preterm babies. She described her experience as a “hazy nightmare” and said having to choose one of the two burial options as deeply upsetting: “The way this was done didn’t leave me with any sense of choice or empowerment or ownership over my experience, my narrative, my body. It felt incredibly violating.”
It’s important to note that none of these feelings were about any part of the process for medically managing the miscarriage, or the treatment by the staff, but about Seton’s policy that all people who die there should be buried. Norton’s whole complaint stems from having to choose to either bury her baby privately, or to sign an acknowledgment that Seton would handle the burial for her, at no cost, and list her as the child’s mother on the paperwork.
Her mother, Donna Howard, a state representative, has tried unsuccessfully to introduce legislation in Texas that would bar Seton from burying all of the deceased bodies that leave their hospital. She tried going through the head of the hospital at Seton to change the policy, and that was unsuccessful as well. Howard describes Seton’s policy as forcing religion, as if it’s not a scientific reality that a human dies during a miscarriage.
How Most Hospitals Handle Miscarriages
Many people may have never thought too deeply about what usually happens to the body of a child after a miscarriage or a stillbirth. Other families, especially who have had a child die, may have come across this issue before.
There are no national norms for how hospitals deal with the bodies of babies who have died before viability, but it’s not atypical for the bodies to be processed with other medical waste. Babies born after 20 weeks must, by law, be cremated or buried, and states fill out death certificates or death reports when a child dies after this gestation. Prior to this, though, babies’ bodies are often incinerated with the rest of the medical products that come out of hospitals, then buried.
In 2014, a newspaper in the UK published a story that noted, “The bodies of more than 15,000 unborn foetuses have been incinerated in the UK, an investigation has found, with some treated as ‘clinical waste’ and others burned to heat hospitals. The practice was carried out by 27 National Health Service trusts, with at least 15,500 bodies burned over the previous two years alone. Ten of those trusts admitted to burning more than 1,000 sets of remains along with other hospital rubbish, while two said they were incinerated in ‘waste-to-energy’ furnaces that generate energy used to power and heat hospitals.”
The article understandably outraged people, but that too quickly faded to the background after the NHS promised to stop fueling hospital power sources with the bodies of children.
In light of the alternatives, Seton should be praised for extending the rights and coverage offered to babies over 20 weeks’ gestation to those who die before that age. Sometimes when a loss is very early, a baby’s body might not be easily discernible. In that case, the hospital can still collect the tissues most likely to contain the remains of the baby, and let the family bury those if they so desire.
Offering parents the opportunity to have a funeral with the body of their child acknowledges the reality that the family has lost a tiny member. If the family wants to grieve with their friends, family, and church around them, they should have that ability. The ability to mourn that child is not a punishment, but an important part of the healing process.
There is much written about viewing the body of a loved one to say a final goodbye. This same wisdom applies when saying a final earthly goodbye to a child who dies during a miscarriage or a stillbirth. Seton is not cruel or wrong for offering families this choice, nor are they unkind for including the bodies of babies with their policy that, “As a catholic institution, the Seton Healthcare Family policy is for all loss of life to be given a proper burial.”
A hospital spokesperson further explained the hospital’s position and motivation: “If people don’t want the remains buried in a Catholic cemetery, they can take responsibility for handling the remains. If they don’t take responsibility for that, it’s taken care of by the health care system. It’s important to emphasize that we’re trying to do the right thing, by taking care of folks mainly who are disconsolate, and already dealing with a lot.”
This is not the policy of a hospital seeking to heap grief on people in a dark and painful time, but rather one of compassion. Policies like this prevent parents from feeling like their only choice is to stay home if they want to be sure they’ll be able to have their baby’s remains after a miscarriage, which can be dangerous for the mother. This isn’t about removing agency or choice, but honoring the loss of life.