How Politicians Exploit Fears About Death to Attack Abortion Care

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How Politicians Exploit Fears About Death to Attack Abortion Care

Caroline Reilly

If we’re so afraid of death—and we are—then equating fetal burial legislation with abortion will only impede access.

Americans are afraid of death. Like, really afraid of it.

It’s this reticence to embrace the inevitable, with healthy open discussions and accessible care, that makes the funeral industrial complex a thriving, moneymaking machine. The U.S. funeral industry is currently estimated at about $16 billion market size, with the median U.S. funeral costing around $7,640. It’s an industry fraught with cost barriers, old-school and outdated practices, and an aversion to progress.

So what happens when you cross that with the anti-abortion movement? Well, as you might imagine, it’s not great.

You’ve probably heard of fetal burial laws, which require the disposition of fetal tissue in a manner similar to that of well … a dead person. Most recently, an Ohio judge temporarily blocked the enforcement of a fetal burial law, which requires the burial or cremation of fetal remains. It was signed into law by Republican Gov. Mike DeWine last December; the judge’s decision earlier this month was handed down a day before the law was set to go into effect.

Roe has collapsed and Texas is in chaos.

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But the Ohio fetal burial law is far from unique. Arkansas, Indiana, Louisiana, and Texas all have enacted laws regulating the disposition of fetal tissue (though all but Indiana’s have been blocked by the courts), and lawmakers in numerous other states have introduced similar legislation.

Fetal burial laws are harmful for a number of reasons. For starters, they’re an abortion restriction, which means they’re de facto unecessary and dangerous. But you might be asking: If they’re legislating the disposal of fetal remains, doesn’t that mean the abortion has already happened? So how is it a restriction?

By invoking images of death through the requirement of burying or cremating fetal tissue, lawmakers are forcing patients to confront their abortion decision as a death.

And honestly, that’s a solid question. Fetal burial laws are insidious the same way laws that require abortion providers to have admitting privileges at local hospitals are insidious: They force providers into agreements with outside organizations that may not be amenable, and in many circumstances are openly hostile, to what abortion providers do. What ends up happening is that a clinic can’t find a hospital—or in this case, a funeral home—to help it comply with these laws, forcing it to close.

But fetal burial laws invoke an even more nuanced obstruction to care by playing into the country’s largely death-phobic nature. Death-phobia is more than just the fear of death and dying: It’s a culture of shame and stigma surrounding death and end of life that breeds anxiety and misunderstanding.

Progressive death-care workers, like those at the Order of the Good Death (where I work as a social media contributor), are pioneering a movement, deemed death positive, to combat the toxic culture around death in the United States, and instead encourage open communication about death and a shift toward understanding that shrouding death in silence does more harm than good.

By invoking images of death through the requirement of burying or cremating fetal tissue, lawmakers are forcing patients to confront their abortion decision as a death. But many don’t see abortion as a death or loss of life at all. And while we know that some people do grieve their abortions as they would a pregnancy loss, we also know that for many people abortion brings on feelings of relief and everything in between.

This forced association could cause patients to forgo or second guess an abortion because of the guilt or ill feelings it evokes, just like laws requiring fetal ultrasounds. These laws are, by design, a cruelty; subjecting pregnant people who choose abortion to emotional torment in the hopes that it will delay or exhaust them into changing their mind. And if they fail to change their mind, laws like those mandating fetal burial make sure that no matter how you feel about your abortion, it’s going to be a heavy and traumatic experience.

Invoking death-phobia to restrict abortion is not unique to fetal burial laws—other laws like those mandating perinatal hospice, which would require a person to carry an unviable pregnancy to term instead of having an abortion, also play to our fears and inability to talk about death openly.

Lawmakers who support fetal burial laws are counting on this country’s death-phobia. They need constituents to hear words like “cremation” or “remains” and recoil. If we’re so afraid of death—and we are—then equating it with abortion will only impede access.

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Fetal Burial