Protecting the dignity of life even through death

January 9, 2018

On Dec. 11, 2017, the Texas Department of Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) in Austin held hearings for public comment on regulations requiring the humane disposition (through burial or cremation) of the bodies of persons lost to abortion. Based on legislation passed during the 85th legislative session, these new regulations eliminate the previous rules allowing for the disposal of these remains via either a sanitary sewer system or placement in a landfill.

Pursuant to the new rules, these remains must now be afforded burial or other humane interment as already legally required for all other human remains. Assistance with the processes and costs of burying fetal remains in Texas has been offered by various organizations, including the Texas Catholic Bishops Conference and Catholic cemeteries in various dioceses.

Many Texans are surprised to learn that the prior methods for handling human remains were at any time lawful. It may be more surprising to learn of the significant disagreement, in some quarters, about the propriety of requiring humane burial for fetal remains. During the Dec. 11 hearing, comments opposed to the new humane burial regulations alleged the rules constituted “religious coercion” and were allegedly “cruel and medically unnecessary.”

One witness described the rules as a “calculated and deceitful attempt to harm [women’s] constitutional access to care.” Commenters included representatives from abortion advocacy groups such as Planned Parenthood and NARAL (National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League) Pro-Choice Texas as well as individual citizens. How to make sense of these responses to legislation that requires, for many Texans, practices of simple common sense and basic decency?

It is a fundamental tenet of our Catholic faith that the dead must be treated with respect and charity as a corporal work of mercy (Cf., Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2300). Despite the objection of some that requiring such treatment constitutes “religious coercion,” recognizing the dignity to be afforded the dead is not, and never has been, limited to Christian revelation, or even to religious tradition in general.

Human societies throughout history have recognized that human dignity does not cease at death and, consequently, have required that human bodies be afforded humane treatment after death has occurred. We are rightly affronted by the memory of those historical instances where societies have failed to observe this basic requirement. How can we account for the offense taken at efforts to treat humanely the bodies of those lost to abortion?

Another common objection to the regulations alleged that they would restrict women’s constitutional access to abortion in the State of Texas. There is no great likelihood that access will be restricted due to increased cost.

Although some commentators alleged otherwise, the HHSC itself estimated a minimal increased cost per abortion procedure of between $.52 and $1.56 as a result of the regulation. Neither does the law restrict any particular abortion procedure or impose any additional requirements (such as a waiting period) on the woman seeking the procedure. The contention that the regulations impose an undue burden on abortion access are spurious.

From another perspective, however, abortion providers are correct that the regulations do pose a significant threat ­— not to women — but to their business model. This threat comes from the regulations’ undermining of the entire ideology that makes abortion acceptable. This threat was apparent in the testimony of several post-abortive women who spoke against requiring the burial of fetal remains.

One commented that what had been removed from her body was simply “a mass of tissue” and as such, was merely medical waste, under serving of special treatment. She went on to state that the requirement that this mass of tissue be buried was personally traumatizing. This reaction is not surprising. A medical procedure that removes a growth of tissue raises no particular moral concerns. One that results in the death of a human being, who society must then provide for, is entirely different.

Despite this woman’s painful experience and the understandable nature of her grief, there is ultimately no value in denying the fact of her lost child. For abortion providers, there is a real danger that the new regulations, and the humane treatment they require, will humanize the unborn person in the mind of the public.

A society that comes to embrace the humanity of the deceased fetus must necessarily become increasingly uncomfortable with the procedure that causes its demise.

Julie Fritsch is the director of the Archdiocesan Office of Pro-Life Activities.