When the Texas legislature met to debate a bill that would reorganize some of the functions in the Department of State Health Services, few people were expecting a battle over abortion rights to occur. After all, Texas has already passed some of the most restrictive laws in the nation, resulting in the closure of many of the clinics in the state, an effective ban on medication abortions, and a lawsuit winding its way up to the Supreme Court.
Despite the apparent victories that anti-abortion activists have seen in the state, loopholes still existed, and Republican state Rep. Matt Schaefer hoped to remedy that with an anti-abortion amendment tacked onto an unrelated health services bill. The amendment would have taken the state’s already unconstitutional 20 week ban, which does not allow abortions even if the person requesting it was impregnated through sexual assault, and forbid the only exception that did make it through the legislature—an allowance for an abortion if the fetus was found to have a genetic anomaly.
Legislation meant to force a pregnant person to continue gestating even if a genetic defect is detected has been gaining momentum within the past few years. Primarily the efforts have revolved around the issue of a fetus diagnosed with Down Syndrome, such as the groundbreaking North Dakota ban in 2013, but although they are often introduced, they haven’t become a successful cause for the anti-abortion movement.
For many of the so-called “fetal pain” 20 week bans, however, a fetal anomaly exception was eliminated, or was so tightly regulated that it would take multiple doctors to confirm that a fetus was incapable of life outside the womb. Even then the restrictions would demand that a doctor perform an abortion in such a way as to make the fetus most likely to survive the procedure—a rule that had some doctors noting that it could force pregnant people to undergo c-sections for non-viable fetuses.
For many people, the idea of forcing a pregnant person to continue a pregnancy of a fetus with a genetic anomaly is highly uncomfortable one, and to make them give birth to one that has no ability to survive outside the womb is completely abhorrent. In the height of debate over 20 week abortion bans, polling commissioned on behalf of Planned Parenthood found that over 60 percent of respondents believe that abortion should be available after 20 weeks if the fetus is incompatible with life.
Anti-abortion activists have done what they can since then to try to reverse the public perception that forcing a person to carry a non-viable fetus or a fetus with genetic anomalies to term and then give birth is cruel. For instance, Americans United for Life has introduced model legislation that would require doctors to provide information about perinatal hospices so that a family can have medical and emotional resources for dealing with the birth and then either immediate or drawn out death of the baby after he or she enters the world.
“These programs support the family emotionally and give them the tools to say goodbye to their baby,” wrote AUL legal counsel William Saunders in 2011. “This is in stark contrast to the abrupt separation that occurs when a pregnancy is terminated. Perinatal hospice gives the family time to hold the newborn, and to collect photos and mementos to remember him by. These little treasures can be a beautiful gift during the time of bereavement that follows the child’s passing. And the gift of time is invaluable.” AUL’s model passed in Oklahoma in 2014, and signed into law that April by Republican Governor Mary Fallin.
While hospice care is supposed to serve as the anti-abortion option to actually terminating a pregnancy, it does little to address the health risks that increase for the pregnant person as the pregnancy continues, or the emotional harm that comes with months of explanations to friends, family and even strangers about the inevitability of the death of the baby after he or she is born, or simply keeping that aspect quiet and accepting the well-wishes and congratulations of people as the due date draws near.
Allowing a pregnant person to terminate a fetus with an anomaly, especially one so severe as to be incompatible with life, should be an easy exception to keep in place, especially with so much public support for it. Instead, Rep. Schaefer and those of his mindset want it removed. Why?
Religion, of course.
“This doesn’t value what God values,” Schaefer argued in a floor fight over adding his amendment to eliminate the fetal anomaly exception from Texas’s 20 week ban.
On the one hand, for those who are truly anti-abortion in all cases, the vast majority view their opposition to the procedure as a religious issue. Life begins at conception with the joining of sperm and egg, creating a new human protected by God, and no one but God should have the ability to decide when that life ends, be it by abortion, suicide, murder or removing life support. (As long as that life is “innocent,” of course. There is a faction quite willing to support the death penalty despite the obvious connotations of “playing God.”)
On the other hand, such an active, hands on, “life giving and life taking-away” belief in God also tends to open the door for putting faith in front of science when it comes to medical care. It’s a scenario that advises doctors to take a “watchful waiting” approach to an ectopic pregnancy, sacrificing a pregnant person’s fallopian tube and potentially her life on the myth that the embryo might detach and reattach somewhere else, or that there might be a “hidden twin” that could die if a methotrexate shot is administered, whereas otherwise without intervention the embryo in the tube might miscarry on its. Or has the religious anti-abortion advocates declaring miracles when a baby is born with none of the anomalies that were detected in an ultrasound, or when an infant with anencephaly survives for three years rather than just a few days after birth.
Placing “God’s will” over that of pregnant people, their families, and their medical providers doesn’t just harm the medical relationship by sowing mistrust between a doctor whose advice and diagnoses can never be completely verified because the Lord could eventually intercede. It also implies an ability to judge the character of the pregnant person herself based on whether she is blessed with a miracle birth that defied medical odds, or instead still gives birth to a less than medically perfect child.
After all, politicians already informed the public that God uses disabled children as a punishment.
Texas lawmakers managed to kill Schaefer’s amendment, but it’s unlikely that this will be the last time a local politician tries to close the “anomalies exception” loophole. While the majority of Americans who agree with limiting abortion believe that cases of rape, incest, fetal anomalies and a pregnant person’s health are all valid reasons to terminate a pregnancy, sadly, those aren’t the views of many state lawmakers being elected into office.
These lawmakers want to stop doctors from playing God with fetal life, and let a pregnant person’s medical health be left up to divine intervention instead.
Robin Marty is a freelance writer, speaker and activist. Her current project, Clinic Stories, focuses on telling the history of legal abortion one clinic at a time. Robin’s articles have appeared at Cosmopolitan.com, Rolling Stone, Politico, Ms. Magazine and other publications.