Around midnight on June 4, Tanya Sanders and her best friend were out two-stepping at a country-and-western nightclub in Baytown. Their night on the town came to an abrupt end, however, when Sanders began suffering severe stomach cramps and excessive uterine bleeding and was taken to the emergency room at San Jacinto Methodist Hospital in Baytown. After obtaining Sanders' medical history from her, which included an abortion three months earlier, the emergency room physician admitted the 19-year-old woman into the hospital for overnight tests and observation.
The next morning Sanders' physician, Dr. Louis Hughes, stopped by to check on her during his regular hospital rounds. According to Sanders, Hughes indicated that he believed her condition might be related to a pelvic infection for which she had been hospitalized the year before. Sanders was still in San Jacinto Methodist the following day when she asked Hughes if her bleeding might have been caused by a recent automobile accident she had been involved in -- which had not required her to be hospitalized -- or whether it might be the result of her April abortion.
"And he was like, 'You had an abortion?'" recalls Sanders. "And I was like, 'Yeah, on my chart, I told the ER doctor.' And he says, 'You realize that's murder. That's murder. There's a lot of women out there who can't get pregnant who want to adopt. Look what it did to you. It could cause lifelong damage and you may never be able to have kids again.'"
Sanders says she and a friend who was in the room with her were left slack-jawed by Hughes' sermon. Sanders called her mother, who happens to work for San Jacinto Methodist in the hospital's print shop, and her mother, in turn, called Hughes and confronted him. According to Sanders' mother, Hughes acknowledged that he had made the statements and claimed he had the right to do so. (Both Hughes and the hospital's administrator declined to comment on Sanders' allegations.)
Sanders says Hughes' mini-lecture left her "stressed" and required her to be sedated. She says she told hospital officials she didn't want the "bastard" back in her room and was assured that Hughes would not return. Finally calmed, and confident that Hughes would not bother her again, Sanders went to sleep that evening. But the next morning she and her friend, who had stayed overnight with her, were awakened by an unsolicited follow-up visit from her former doctor, who was ready with another round of moralizing for his captive audience.
"I just like looked at him," Sanders remembers, "and I was in shock. And he was like, 'You know, I heard from your mother yesterday, and she got mad because I expressed my opinion. And I'm sorry if it upset you but that's my opinion, and in my eyes it's murder. You murdered a baby.'"
Sanders says Hughes then handed her a couple of newspaper clippings about abortion being a form of execution and told her to give them to her mother.
"I flipped," says Sanders. "I called for the nurse and told her to page my mother. Then I got my IV and walked down to the lobby. I was going to leave the hospital -- IV, hospital gown and everything. I was going to walk out that door. I mean, I threw a scene."
Intercepted by hospital personnel, Sanders returned to her room, where her father was waiting. It was the first he had heard of her abortion.
"Everybody was freaking out," says Sanders. "I was, like, ready to jump out the window."
But Sanders checked out through the front door the next day, her ailment having been diagnosed as an abscessed ovary. Upon her release she says she immediately began trying to contact Rod Seidel, the administrator of San Jacinto Methodist. Sanders says she never heard from Seidel. Finally, two weeks ago, Sanders says, she called the hospital again and finally got through to the elusive administrator.
"I said, 'Mr. Seidel, this is Tanya Sanders. Can we please get together and meet?' And he said, 'Well, Miss Sanders, I did talk to the doctor. I told him I didn't think it was right. But he said it was his opinion and there's nothing much we can do about that.'"
Sanders says Seidel refused to meet with her. "I never got so much as a letter in the mail saying that they were sorry," she fumes. "I don't regret having an abortion. It was my choice. It's not like I was irresponsible. I was on the pill. I was 19. I'm working. I didn't want a baby. And I'm not going to have somebody, especially my doctor, come in and call me a murderer while I'm in the hospital."
When contacted by the Press, Hughes, citing the confidentiality of his doctor-patient relationship with Sanders, said he could not discuss the episode unless he received a letter of permission to do so from Sanders. However, after Sanders faxed him such a release, Hughes did not return calls from the Press.
Similarly, hospital administrator Seidel declined to discuss Sanders' complaint. However, a hospital spokeswoman did confirm that Hughes continues to enjoy privileges at San Jacinto Methodist. She also confirmed that the hospital has an internal ethics committee, but refused to say if it had been made aware of Sanders' story and, if so, whether Hughes had been disciplined or reprimanded.
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While officials at the Baytown hospital refused to discuss the incident, Dr. Gailen D. Marshall Jr., head of Hermann Hospital's ethics committee, says he finds Sanders' tale alarming -- even though he is personally opposed to abortion.
"I'm against abortion on demand," says Marshall. "But to go in and berate and club someone over the head with a personal philosophical position, regardless of what I think, is violating the patient/physician relationship.
"Physicians are human beings like anyone else. And they have their own level of prejudice. They have their own levels of presupposition. But we are fundamentally obliged to subtract those from our physician/patient relationship. And if we are unable to do so then it is, in my mind, almost fraudulent to continue to maintain that physician/patient relationship when we can no longer be objective with the patient. They deserve nothing less."
Sanders, meanwhile, is pondering her legal options.