Maureen Sweeney

Photo: Justin Ketchem

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The Pain Reliever: Maureen Sweeney

It's terrifying enough to give birth when you're surrounded by supportive family. But imagine that you're 17—or 14—and pregnancy has brought you nothing but trouble and shame. And your mom is still so angry with you that when you're in the delivery room and it's time for the epidural that would ease your agony, she says no—to punish you. And there's nothing you can do about it because by law you need the consent of a parent or guardian for your own healthcare.

This scene replayed over and over during the two years Maureen Sweeney worked as a labor and delivery nurse at MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland. It devastated Sweeney, who had her own first child at 18, to think that girls who were about to become mothers couldn't request spinal pain meds—which over 60 percent of American women rely on to endure vaginal childbirth. "You never get over seeing someone in pain like that," she says.

One night in 2011, Sweeney spent her shift helping a 15-year-old runaway through an excruciating labor and delivery. There was no guardian to sign for her epidural, let alone hug her afterward. Outraged, Sweeney tracked down the head of anesthesiology to get the full story on this cruel rule. He explained that the hospital wasn't to blame—Ohio was.

When Sweeney's shift ended at 7:30 a.m., she went home and started reading up on policy. She discovered that Ohio's healthcare consent laws required adult permission for pregnant minors to have ultrasounds and tests to check for chromosomal abnormalities, receive prenatal care, elect anesthesia, and undergo nonemergency C-sections—leaving young women at the mercy of a parent or guardian or, in the case of runaways, a state child services worker.

That same morning, Sweeney emailed her state representative, Nickie Antonio, whose daughter she'd played soccer with in high school. Antonio promised to look into the situation and indeed drafted a bill later that year. However, the timing was never quite right to bring the legislation to the floor. "Maureen wouldn't let me forget about it, though," Antonio says. Even as Sweeney earned a master's degree, gave birth to a second child, and advanced her career—she's now an associate medical director of FrontLine Service, which helps people in crisis receive mental health care—she kept reminding Antonio about the teens suffering needlessly in labor and delivery rooms.

Last July, Antonio and fellow Democrat Kristin Boggs introduced a bill to the Ohio Legislature that would allow pregnant minors to consent to their own healthcare and that of their unborn child. In February, Sweeney testified on behalf of the bill to a legislative committee, and Antonio is hopeful it will pass by year's end—a joyful outcome to a long and labor-intensive crusade.

—Carlene Bauer