Sad Dreams of a Sanitized Heaven

State proposals for fetus funeral laws are another way of punishing the disadvantaged

Megan NolanJanuary 03, 2017
Tom Coady

Mandatory funerals for unborn fetuses are designed to humiliate women. / Tom Coady

There are many horrors the incoming administration promises to impose on the disadvantaged in America, and one of the cruelest is a crackdown on a woman’s right to access abortion. It is all the more frightening for already being well underway. On December 12, 2016, seven days before they were to be implemented, new regulations to enforce funeral procedures following abortions in Texas were temporarily blocked. The rules, finalized in November, compelled the cremation or burial of fetal and embryonic tissue following all abortions that occur outside the home, regardless of what stage of pregnancy the termination had occurred. The lawsuit that halted them was filed by the Center for Reproductive Rights—it contested that they present no medical benefits and would serve only to unnecessarily restrict abortion. 

Earlier this year, vice president-elect Mike Pence, who has vowed to send Roe v. Wade “to the ash heap of history where it belongs,” signed similar legislation in Indiana. It was overturned on appeal, after a judge found that it unconstitutionally threatened a woman’s right to access abortion before a fetus is viable.

Since the first easing of abortion law in the United States to account for cases of incest and rape, and particularly since Roe v. Wade in 1973, there have been as many strategic legal challenges undermining the ability of health care providers to do their jobs as there are old men who want to legislate our reproductive parts without being able to name them. There were more than sixty new restrictions on abortion access in 2016 alone. These challenges are chillingly effective even when they fail, or are overturned on appeal, insofar as they at least temporarily disrupt services, and at best permanently hamper them by raising costs and restricting access, disproportionately affecting the poor. Earlier this year, a ruling in Texas that obligated medical professionals to have admitting privileges at a hospital within a thirty-mile radius of their clinic in order to perform the procedure was overruled. It succeeded in shutting down over half the clinics functioning in that state, despite its eventual defeat.

The proposing of these funeral bills is likely to be the new tactic used by anti-choice politicians and lobbies to achieve similar results. A parallel attempt is being made in Ohio, inspired by attorney general Mike DeWine. “They don’t do anything one at a time,” said Vicki Saporta, the president of the National Abortion Federation, of the anti-abortion lobbies.  

Some brief background on what the Texas regulations would mean in reality: currently, standard practice is to dispose of fetal remains after abortion in the same way as general human medical waste; that is, using incineration or a sanitary landfill. While in some states allowances are made, for instance in cases of fetal abnormality, for when a woman may wish to arrange for burial or cremation, there is no obligation to stage a grieving ritual. This is because it’s commonly understood that fetal remains are human medical waste, rather than human.

The proposed regulations in Texas would not hold a woman responsible for personally arranging a funeral for the fetal remains, but would compel abortion providers to do so on her behalf; this would drive up the cost of an abortion to twice or even four times what it is now. An abortion taking place between twelve and fifteen weeks, which now costs $800, could potentially cost between $1600 and $3200.

Here is the material as well as symbolic victory of a law like this. Symbolically, it imposes the ceremony and ritual of a funeral onto women who will, by and large, have no desire for them to take place and will be actively shamed by their occurrence. Even when they take place remotely, the knowledge that a funeral ceremony is being held after your abortion is obviously a tactic designed to humiliate. Its utter redundancy, the gratuity of it, is an insult—a paternalistic dressing down, an attempt to condemn you to remember your decision as sin.

The knowledge that a funeral ceremony is being held after your abortion is very obviously a tactic designed to humiliate.

Materially, it will drive up costs. It will do what all restrictive abortion measures do, which is to ensure that poor and desperate women who are in most need of help are unable to get it.

I am reminded of the hypocrisy of certain Irish politicians in this matter. Abortion is illegal in almost all cases in Ireland, including those of rape, incest, and fetal abnormalities. Every day an average of twelve women travel from Ireland to England to access abortion services, which, including travel and overnight accommodation where necessary, can cost anything from £500-2000 plus.

Every so often a brave and unnecessarily traumatized couple will go public with their horrifying story of what happens after they find their late-term fetus has an abnormality incompatible with life. They tell of being forced to leave their country and their family in the darkest hour of their lives, or being forced to carry a pregnancy to full term against their wishes in Ireland. These are generally the only cases an Irish politician will sympathize with, and they might say at best that the conditions the couple went over to England in are dreadful, and oughtn’t we do something about that to make it easier for them (at some point, when we have time).

In such cases they say, these people, who are anti-abortion, that abortion is a medically necessary procedure. They know this—they acknowledge this when they wring their hands about the poor couple they heard on the radio, and yet they wash those same hands of it. They, eventually, are fine with whatever grotesque indecencies are visited on the women who leave Ireland for England, because they believe that we should be punished for it. Even if it is necessary at times, we shouldn’t get away with it. We should suffer.

Again, materially, what this means is that the poorest women are placed at risk. The poorest women attempt to abort their own pregnancies, terrified at home, or in the hands of someone unqualified. Or they are forced to give birth against their will, a brutal theft of bodily autonomy which is almost unimaginable, unless you’ve come close to it, as so many of us have (counting, and scrounging, and borrowing to get over to England).

Think about the children born to mothers like that, mothers without resources or support networks. Many of these will be the same mothers who are held up as examples of a failed state. Their children are the ones who are begrudged the benefits needed to eat enough food every day and access health care. The Christian Right sentimentalize the unborn, they spend their time making corny posters with doe-eyed Disney fetuses begging Mommy not to kill them. And then the unborn are born, and the exact class of people who insisted that they were born will go on to despise them for the rest of their lives.

Then the unborn are born, and the exact class of people who insisted that they were born will go on to despise them for the rest of their lives.

There was a scandal in Ireland not long ago, about a Mother-and-Baby home in a place called Tuam. A local historian named Catherine Corless investigated the institution, which was a Catholic social service for unwed mothers and their babies. Similar institutions existed throughout Ireland, many of them in horrific conditions. Physical abuse was common, and basic sanitary conditions were so poor that infant mortality rates reached 50 percent, compared to a national average of 7 percent, in parts.

Corless found that in the thirty six years the home in Tuam was operational, between 1925 and 1961, nearly eight hundred infant or child deaths were recorded as having taken place on the premises. She crosschecked with cemeteries in the county and found that the children had not been buried there, and surmised that at least some of that 796 were buried unofficially on the grounds of the institution.  Throughout the decades following its closure, local children would occasionally uncover graves as they played, which were covered back up. In at least one instance after some local boys excavated skulls, a priest came to say mass in the area, though no official marker or acknowledgement was made. There is still no official memorial incorporating the names of all those children who died there, although in the aftermath of Corless’s research a commission has now begun investigating fourteen of the homes, including Tuam.

I think of these graves when I think of the proposed funeral measures in Texas, Indiana, and Ohio, of the supposed dignity being given to a fetus, which is really only pageantry intended to induce shame and pain in a woman. I think of what happens in reality when unwanted babies are born, how little those who championed them before they were born will care, how easily the babies will shed the special privilege and symbolic value of fetuses, and be thrown away.

Those who would remove our reproductive rights have no interest in what happens after birth, which is why we should always know to distrust their mawkish appeals to emotion. They are not interested in life, as they always claim, which is after all a compromised and often filthy thing to engage with. They are interested only in keeping their own hands clean, their own sin sheet unticked, their sad dreams of a sanitized heaven within reach.

Megan Nolan is an Irish writer and artist based in London.