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She fought Scientology for the child they wanted to abort

Natalie Hagemo and Shelby. ‘‘My daughter is alive today in spite of what happened. If they had their way — and she knows this today — she would not be here.”
Natalie Hagemo and Shelby. ‘‘My daughter is alive today in spite of what happened. If they had their way — and she knows this today — she would not be here.”
Published Jun. 14, 2010

Twenty years ago, when Natalie Hagemo was 19, pregnant and working for the Church of Scientology, she couldn't wait to be a mother.

She was near the end of her first tri­mester, she says, when colleagues in Scientology's military-style religious order, the Sea Organization, began pressuring her to get an abortion.

Two high-ranking officers said terminating the pregnancy would allow her to keep working. They berated her when she said no.

Supervisors told her to hide her expanding belly lest co-workers start thinking it was acceptable to get pregnant. Friends and colleagues shunned her.

Hagemo stood fast and, with her husband at her side, delivered Shelby on Aug. 20, 1990.

Hagemo left the Sea Org but remained an active parishioner and raised her daughter as a Scientologist.

When Shelby was 14, a recruiter came by the local church and signed her up to serve in the Sea Org for a billion years. Hagemo put aside her doubts and allowed it, figuring her daughter would want to come home soon.

A week or so later, Shelby called home in tears, wanting out. Hagemo called a church supervisor to discuss the discharge procedure. She remembers his anger:

You have no say in this. How dare you interfere. You are suppressive.

She reminded him that Shelby was 14; she was still her legal guardian. He told Hagemo the Sea Org didn't have to follow the law of the non-Scientology world.

Angry and worried, Hagemo flew to Los Angeles to get her daughter out. She said it took two weeks.

Church spokesman Tommy Davis said Hagemo's account is "false and denied." He said she was "never pressured to have an abortion," the Sea Org is not hostile to pregnant women and, when Shelby asked to leave, the church helped her "route out.''

Not until this year did Hagemo tell her daughter what happened 20 years ago, and how several colleagues submitted to pressures to get abortions.

"I look at you and I think how many more like you there could have been. And I think about the moms and the dads who had to go through that. And for what?"

The church, she says, wanted it both ways. In the womb, Shelby was a problem, easily discarded.

"Well, the problem became a commodity. She could now work all these hours in the Sea Org, be a cog in a wheel. She was now worth something.

"In my head I was thinking about the irony of it all. Fourteen years later, the child I would not abort, the Sea Org is now trying to keep from me."

Marrying young

Hagemo was 4 when her parents divorced and her mom married a Scientologist.

She was in her early teens when her mom told her dad he couldn't see his daughters if he continued taking drugs. He chose the drugs.

"It devastated me," Hagemo said. "Who makes a choice like that?"

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Growing up on Oahu in the 1970s, she hung out at the Scientology community church, or "org," in downtown Honolulu. Kids played and talked while parents took courses and got counseling.

Hagemo was 13 when she read The Problems of Work, by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. The book said if something is confusing you, pick a "stable datum,'' a piece of information known to be true, and build on it. That and other Scientology strategies helped Hagemo deal with problems at home.

She was impressed by the discipline of Sea Org members who visited the local church. They seemed more stable than many of the adults in her life, and they took her seriously.

"That was a new concept for me," she said. "I felt like, Wow, I have something to offer."

She dropped out of high school late her sophomore year and joined the staff of the Honolulu org. Eventually the family moved to L.A., and Hagemo and her younger sister joined the Sea Org.

The order cared little about age. Teens were given all the responsibilities they could handle and expected to perform like veterans. Good workers were promoted to senior positions, a philosophy Hagemo welcomed. She was promoted from the staff dining room to a position in a treasury office.

A friend introduced her to his brother, Dan LaFreniere, and Hagemo found herself in her first serious relationship.

Because the Sea Org prohibits intimate contact between unmarried staffers, the young couple skipped dating and married within a few weeks.

"People tend to get married, and get married at a young age,'' Hagemo said. "I was 17 when I got married, and it wasn't uncommon. I had friends that were younger."

Her new husband was about two years older.

Hagemo's parents had not talked to her about reproduction or the rhythms of her body, and neither did anyone in the Sea Org. She didn't use birth control or keep track of her periods.

Unaware she had been pregnant eight weeks, she had a miscarriage when she was 18. The unexpected loss woke the teenage couple to the idea of starting a family.

Less than a year later, around Christmas 1989, Hagemo was pregnant again.

"I told my husband first and he was really happy. We both wanted kids so it was like, Wow, this is our first baby."

They decided to go forward with their family, even knowing what would come next.

Proving loyalty

Hagemo had seen pregnant Sea Org members ostracized, made to confess their sins against the group and told to make amends.

To get back in good standing, they were required to deliver an "effective blow" on behalf of Scientology. They also had to ask their colleagues for their signatures saying they approved their return.

One night in the staff dining hall, before Hagemo became pregnant, a woman asked for her signature. The woman's handwritten statement said her pregnancy was bringing down the group but she had redeemed herself by "terminating" it. Also in her favor, the woman had turned in a co-worker who was wanting children.

"I was so shocked I couldn't believe what I was reading," said Hagemo, who interpreted church founder L. Ron Hubbard's writings as decidedly pro-family. Still, she joined others in signing the woman's statement.

She knew a 1986 policy change required new parents be reassigned from the Sea Org to staff local churches. The couple would have to survive on their own but were up for the challenge. They wanted their baby.

After Hagemo reported her pregnancy to a supervisor, two girls who looked 14 or 15 came to her office. They were "messengers'' from upper management, senior officers held in high esteem.

They told her that by getting pregnant she was letting down L. Ron Hubbard, the Sea Org and all mankind. The "greatest good" would be to keep working for Scientology. Hagemo said they told her it was "just a fetus ... just cells'' growing inside her.

"I don't recall them saying, 'You need to get an abortion.' It was just: Abortion is very much an option ... You'd be proving your loyalty to the Sea Org."

Hagemo believes some abortions are warranted, but in her case it would have destroyed a life "for no good reason." Her mother survived getting pregnant in high school, she figured she could, too. And the Sea Org would certainly get by without her.

Two days later the young "messengers'' came back to see if she had changed her mind. Ten weeks pregnant, Hagemo told them no, and she says they berated her.

Hagemo and her husband were told they would be assigned to a small org. Until then, she was to wear her jacket and bigger skirts to cloak the pregnancy.

"They didn't want me walking around being obviously pregnant. That was definitely pointed out to me. They didn't want other women getting any ideas that it was okay to be pregnant."

It became impossible to hide. Friends steered clear of her, not wanting to look like they condoned her choice. "You understand," she said they would tell her.

On the rare occasions someone showed interest in her baby-to-be, she talked to them on the sly. "There was no open congratulations, 'Oh my gosh, can I feel the baby kick?' It was like, 'In my office, shut the door.' "

At a restroom sink one day, a public relations staffer looked at Hagemo's belly and asked with disdain, "How can you do that?''

Hagemo started crying and shaking. "I'm in this environment where it's one of the worst things you can possibly do. I'm married. I didn't do anything wrong. I just wanted to scream out sometimes."

Late in her pregnancy, she was called into an office to answer questions while connected to an e-meter. The Scientology device is said to measure a person's mental state, including whether she is telling the truth. Hagemo said the investigator wanted names of people who told her it was okay to get pregnant.

Davis, the church spokesman, said Hagemo's portrayal is false.

"The church has the deepest respect for family and the creation of a family and children. There is no hostility towards pregnant women."

The church provided sworn declarations from one current and 10 former Sea Org members who said they or their spouses were treated well during pregnancies and there was no pressure to have an abortion. One was from Aaradona Walker of Santa Rosa, Calif. She said when she got pregnant in 2008, a church staffer helped her and her husband leave the Sea Org.

"No one tried to get me to change my mind or pressure me to do anything else," Walker wrote. "No one tried to talk me out of having the baby."

Hagemo said their accounts don't change what she experienced.

"Maybe some women were more fortunate when they became pregnant. Not every young boy in the Catholic Church was molested. That it didn't happen to some doesn't mean it didn't happen to the others who did suffer."

Two weeks before her due date, supervisors told Hagemo she could stop working, but she needed to stay in her room up to the delivery and after, until she, Dan and the baby transferred to their new assignment: Seattle.

"This allegation is absurd and is denied,'' Davis said.

Shelby was born at a birth center in Glendale. The young couple brought her home to their tiny room on Scientology's L.A. campus.

"Even though it was crappy circumstances, I was so happy to have my baby," Hagemo said. "I had no doubt in my mind that I made the right decision, especially when she was born."

The recruiter

In the 14 years after her daughter was born, Hagemo had a second daughter, divorced and moved near her mother in Minneapolis. She remarried, had a son and settled in the suburb of Excelsior.

Her husband, Brad Hagemo, is an optometrist and Scientologist. Natalie Hagemo stayed in good standing with the church by paying a $5,000 penalty for leaving the Sea Org.

She took Scientology classes on parenting and finance and later traveled to Los Angeles for counseling, called "auditing.'' By late 2003, she reached the church's upper, or "Operating Thetan," levels. She felt happy and stable.

Shelby, a freshman at Minnetonka High, also was advancing in Scientology. Church courses helped her communicate better, get past her shyness and make friends more easily. She did well in school.

She dreamed of becoming a Scientology counselor, called an auditor, and volunteered whenever she could at the Twin Cities org in downtown Minneapolis.

In fall 2004, a visiting Sea Org member sat Shelby down for a recruiting pitch. If she joined, she could live her dream, she could be an auditor. She could see her family whenever she wanted. The church would take care of all her needs, plus she would be paid $50 a week.

"I'd be loaded," Shelby remembers thinking. "I was, like, 'Let's do it.' I was, like, 'That sounds really cool. I just want to call my mom,' because my mom wasn't there."

Go ahead and sign first, the recruiter said, then we'll call mom. Shelby signed the standard pledge to stay in the Sea Org for this and future lifetimes. She was 14.

Hagemo had to decide whether to give permission. The pressure years earlier to have an abortion still bothered her, but she was a loyal Scientologist and still admired the Sea Org. She knew the recruiter, plus Shelby was so enthused.

Hagemo also knew how the church would portray it if she resisted. She would be seen as "counter intentioned," standing in Scientology's way.

"I thought, 'Okay, I'll let her go.' But I knew in my heart of hearts that she'd be back because I knew she just wouldn't do well in that environment."

Shelby flew to L.A. and was assigned to the EPF, the Estates Project Force, a Sea Org boot camp of sorts. She worked on construction projects by day and studied Scientology at night.

She had fun, but she was homesick and within a week was crying herself to sleep. The recruiter had said Shelby could talk to her family any time, but it took days to get approval to make a phone call. When they finally talked, Shelby told her mom she wanted to come home.

Mom said she would call the right people and get the discharge process started. She got through to the EPF supervisor, who she said turned belligerent and told her she had no right to interfere.

She told him: "I am her parent, I have legal rights. I can walk in there right now and grab her, and there's nothing you can say about it."

Hagemo said he told her the Sea Org wasn't bound by "wog'' law, the rules of the non-Scientology world.

"For one, I know that's not true,'' she said. "But to say it to a parishioner of the church, to a mother. Anybody with a brain knows you don't p--- off a mother.''

Hagemo flew to Los Angeles to get her daughter out. She said Shelby's EPF supervisor put his finger in her face and yelled at her again for interfering.

Days passed. Hagemo kept asking to see her daughter. "When I finally did see her I wasn't allowed to be alone with her."

Nor were they allowed to talk about her leaving. Shelby didn't know where her mother stood. Would she help her get out? "I didn't know if I was ever gonna leave," Shelby said.

Hagemo decided to take the initiative. She found Shelby at an EPF construction site, took her to the chaplain's office and demanded the church start the discharge process, called "routing out.''

It can take weeks or months.

Shelby had to go through an "ethics" regimen that examined her reasons for leaving. She said she felt like she was in big trouble.

Her supervisor told her she had made a promise when she signed her Sea Org contract and would be a liar if she broke it. Calling her mom was a mistake. Leaving would be a huge mistake.

"He flipped my chair around to face him and he got in my face and started yelling at me about how I was being really rude and how I need to knock it off."

The church disputed their account. "Shelby routed out of the Sea Org when she put in a request to do so,'' Davis said.

He added: "No Sea Org member has ever been subjected to 'intimidation.' "

Two weeks after Shelby first asked to leave, the church let her go. About 11 one night, a door near the Sea Org canteen opened and she walked out. The next day, mother and daughter flew home to Minnesota.

Questions but no answers

Not once during those two weeks did Hagemo think about running off with her daughter or calling authorities to assert her legal rights as a parent. She said she wanted to handle the problem by getting the church to abide by its own policies.

She was struck by the belligerence of the Sea Org officer in L.A. She wondered if he was one rogue staffer or a reflection of church management.

Hagemo took a step the church forbids: She searched the Internet for unauthorized information on Scientology.

She found rumors of "forced abortions'' that had dogged the church for years. Other accounts of "disconnection'' told how the church encouraged members to cut off all communication with relatives and friends who question Scientology.

Hagemo still was distressed over how she was treated when she was pregnant in the Sea Org, and the Internet raised more questions. But for her, the benefits she got from Scientology still outweighed all that.

She and Shelby kept taking Scientology courses. Shelby went back to high school and worked nights at the Twin Cities org, a much lighter commitment than the Sea Org. She was 16 and set her sights on becoming a Scientology auditor and course supervisor.

Hagemo supported her daughter. She also spearheaded the church's drug awareness campaign in the Twin Cities. She kept her doubts about church management to herself.

"The church is good at making you think you're the only one who feels that way," she said. "You don't talk about it with your friends because they'll rat you out to the church for bringing it up."

She likened it to staying in a failing marriage because there's too much to lose. "There were some good times. At one point you were in love. You got butterflies from that person.

"Now you're just nothing but unhappy around them. But you keep wanting to hold on. It's human nature."

By her count, members of her church had tried to take her daughter twice. She said they would try a third time.

'I thought it was normal'

Shelby graduated high school in spring 2008 and traveled to Clearwater to be trained as a church staffer. She was 17.

She audited people, supervised course rooms and loved it.

"I got to help a lot of people. I thought it was like the greatest thing in the world."

Other parts were not so great. Besides the training she agreed to, she had to do the work of a full-fledged Sea Org member. She was told to press parishioners to buy Scientology materials and to make donations. Sometimes, to keep her numbers up, Shelby donated money her mom had sent from home.

Many nights after 10, Shelby called parishioners the world over to get them to buy extension courses. She didn't meet her quotas and was constantly in "ethics" trouble.

Some days, she got only beans and rice for lunch and dinner. Meal times were cut to 15 minutes. She cleaned bathrooms and other spaces through the night and often got by on four or five hours of sleep. Bosses yelled at her.

"I thought it was normal at that point,'' Shelby said of the punishments, "because it happens to you so much, little by little, that you think: Okay, this is supposed to happen. I brought it on myself. My statistics are down so I should be on rice and beans …

"It kind of sucked when you had to do it but, you know, I just did it because Scientology was so worth it."

Meantime, her mother's doubts were growing. The Hagemos and other Twin Cities parishioners were getting frequent and demanding pitches to donate money and buy books, CDs and DVDs. The church asked for money several times a day and late at night, by phone and by text. Every time Hagemo entered the Twin Cities org, she said, someone asked her to donate.

By January 2009, she'd had enough. She complained, and a church official said raising money was "command intention" from upper management.

Davis, the church spokesman, responded by citing the church's policy on donations: "Parishioners give voluntarily to support their religion as they have always done."

He said Shelby was never punished in Clearwater and was not deprived of sleep. All staffers in Clearwater "must get proper sleep and nutrition in order to study in accordance with scriptural requirements."

Last June, Hagemo and her husband read "The Truth Rundown,'' the St. Petersburg Times' accounts of high-level church defectors who said they had witnessed physical and mental abuse within the church's top management. Hagemo, her husband, her mother and stepfather decided to leave the church.

The only problem was Shelby. She was still in Clearwater, training and working for the church — a 19-year-old adult who could make her own decisions. If her family were disaffected, the church would tell Shelby to sever relations with all of them.

Hagemo decided not to tell anyone about her break from the church until Shelby came home for Christmas. But church officials in Minnesota could tell the family was having doubts.

Shelby's supervisors pushed hard for her to stay in Clearwater over the holiday. They said she couldn't be replaced, she would be a slacker if she left.

She called her mom, crying.

I don't want to go home … I should stay … I have big responsibilities.

Hagemo recalled: "I just realized then like, Wow, who are you? If you're so happy with your decision to stay there, then why are you crying?"

A church official in Minnesota sent Shelby a list of "bad indicators" about her family:

• Her mom went online and found incorrect information about abuse in the church.

• Her mom and stepfather went on a date instead of attending a church event.

• Her grandmother, a veteran Scientologist, was baptized a Christian.

An ethics officer in Clearwater told Shelby she should not go home to that environment. Not even for the Christmas holiday, which was to include a long-planned trip to Mexico with her biological father, no longer a practicing Scientologist. He threatened to fly to Clearwater to get her, and the church let Shelby leave.

Hagemo said her daughter came home withdrawn and exhausted. She had bulging veins behind one knee that a doctor said came from standing for hours. Shelby said she worked 70-hour weeks.

But she was still wavering. Her family's disavowal of the church seemed sudden and "psycho.''

Hagemo wanted Shelby to decide her own future in the church but saw signs her daughter wasn't thinking for herself. Shelby wanted to call a superior in Clearwater for guidance on whether to come back there. She told her mom: "He'll tell me what to do.''

Shelby was still uncertain when she left to spend the holiday with her father in Mexico.

In a three-sentence e-mail sent Dec. 28, 2009, Hagemo and her husband notified Scientology officials that they were leaving the church. Their note concluded: "We remain Scientologists independent of the Church of Scientology."

That day a church official contacted Shelby in Mexico on Facebook and offered her a place to stay in Minnesota. Furious, Hagemo fired off e-mails demanding the official stay away from her daughter.

"What church attempts to break up and create rifts within a family?" she wrote.

After Shelby returned from Mexico, her mother talked to her about human rights.

"No one has a right to keep you from your family. No one has a right to deprive you of food. No one has a right to deprive you of sleep like that. It's a punishment and it's a human rights abuse.''

That registered with Shelby, Hagemo said. "For her, labeling it for what it was made all the difference in the world.''

In January, Shelby left the church, too.

"Over my life in Scientology, I've had a lot of wins and I did really well.'' she said. "But one common thing that's always happened in the church is they've always tried to do something to disconnect me from some part of my family."

In conversations with Shelby early this year, Hagemo eased into the subject of how she was pressured to abort Shelby 20 years ago. Her reaction? She had seen enough of the Sea Org that she wasn't surprised.

Church spokesman Davis said mother and daughter made their own choices, the church didn't force them to do anything. Now, he said, Hagemo is "rewriting history to justify her decision to leave Scientology."

Hagemo said she sees a years-long pattern of church interference and control. It started in 1990 with pressure to abort Shelby, followed in 2004 by the Sea Org trying to keep Shelby from leaving and in 2009 by the church trying to keep her from family.

"That's three times that they tried to take my daughter,'' Hagemo said. "I mean, call me an idiot for putting up with it for that long.

"It's a process that you go through. For some people it happens quicker, for some it takes a couple of years to really face it … I made excuses for so much."

Joe Childs is Managing Editor/Tampa Bay. He has supervised the Times' coverage of Scientology since 1993. He can be reached at

Thomas C. Tobin is a Times staff writer who has covered the Church of Scientology off and on since 1996. He can be reached at


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