The term “Handmaid’s Tale” has been invoked frequently in the years since the novel was published and the subsequent television series produced. It has become an effective shorthand for a society in which women are prized primarily as vessels for bearing children, an act so sanctified that those who thwart it are criminalized — and worse.
As the wave of laws eroding reproductive rights across the country continue, we are building that society. And in Pennsylvania, if a few pernicious bills succeed, we’ll be even closer. Gov. Tom Wolf announced last week he vetoed one of these bills, passed in the Senate, that would ban abortions based on a diagnosis of Down syndrome. Another bill would remove neutrality from counseling that women with a fatal fetal diagnosis receive. The most insidious, though, is a bill, just passed in the House, that would require death certificates and burial or cremation of fetal tissue that results from an abortion or miscarriage at any point in a pregnancy.
That means the state wants to insert itself into the loss of a pregnancy. Few women find such loss easy, especially those experiencing miscarriage.
Between 10% and 20% of all pregnancies end in miscarriage. (According to the Guttmacher Institute, an additional 18% are terminated through abortions.) Many miscarriages occur during routine doctor visits. If that happens after 16 weeks now, health-care providers are required to have the woman consent to burial or cremation. The new bill would eliminate the time of gestation, meaning that a pregnancy that ends at any stage, by miscarriage or abortion, will be subject to this onerous, intrusive, and expensive process.
Rep. Frank Ryan, the Lebanon lawmaker championing this bill, claims that it stemmed from a miscarriage his wife experienced four decades ago, after which they did not have access to the remains — and that the bill is to help provide that option. The reality is that it inserts the state between a woman and her health-care provider, and threatens providers with criminal penalties if they don’t adhere. It also forces a woman to accept the state-approved script for processing what can be profound loss — which is cruel. But it is also a back-door way to discourage and limit abortions by imposing further stigmas and criminality on a legal act.
“Personhood” is at the heart of this debate: When does a fertilized egg become a person? Those who believe it happens at the moment of conception see no moment when terminating a pregnancy should be legal. Meanwhile, the standard by which the actual law is written is viability — when a fetus can survive outside the womb, which is between 24 and 28 weeks.
Lawmakers across the country want to shut that window completely until no abortions are legal. Bills like this one shame and intimidate women and impose other people’s beliefs on matters that should remain private and personal between a woman and her family and her doctor, as well as between her conscience and her faith.