Commentary Abortion

Losing My Lege: Texas Legislator Thinks Pregnant People Should be Forced to Carry Dead Fetuses to “Do Penance”

Andrea Grimes

Here's a man who is saying that people who are carrying wanted, but unsustainable, pregnancies must be compelled by the state to carry their fetuses to term because they, and we, are sinners.

Losing My Lege is a weekly column about the goings-on in and around the Austin capitol building during the 84th Texas legislature.

Last week, a grown man stood on the floor of the Texas House of Representatives and argued that the state must force pregnant Texans to try to carry dying, deceased, or non-viable fetuses as long as they can. Anything less, said state Rep. Matt Schaefer (R-Tyler), wouldn’t be “pro-life.”

These fetuses “are going to suffer, they’re going to feel pain,” just as adults with terminal illnesses do, said Schaefer, a freshman Tea Party politician from East Texas. “That’s part of the human condition, when sin entered the world, and it grieves us all.”

Y’all, I just need us to sit with that statement for a little while. Here’s a man who is saying that people who are carrying wanted, but unsustainable, pregnancies must be compelled by the state to carry their fetuses to term because they, and we, are sinners. And because Matt Schaefer is a sinner. In other words, those families are doing penance on everyone else’s behalf.

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This is, of course, a burden predicated on Schaefer’s personal and particular interpretation of the Christian faith. It also conveniently serves to bolster his image with right-wing voters without ever requiring he lift a compassionless finger.

Because no matter how hard, or how much, or how long any of us sin, I suspect Matt Schaefer will never be forced to carry a dying fetus to term against the advice of his doctors or his own wishes.

I guess pregnant Texans who are grieving the loss of unsustainable pregnancies will just have to do Schaefer’s penance for him. Maybe that’s part of God’s mission for people who aren’t Matt Schaefer, according to the gospel of Matt Schaefer.

And Schaefer is using his faith to justify inflicting state-mandated pain on people who are already experiencing terrible loss. Schaefer’s proposal, which was ultimately pulled down as part of a procedural quibble after it had initially passed, would have banned abortion after 20 weeks if a fetus has a “severe and irreversible abnormality.” That goes so far beyond cruel as to be almost unimaginable.

But of course, this isn’t unimaginable. Because we know Texans have already been forced to give birth to dying or dead fetuses. Even under current law, doctors who are afraid of running afoul of existing anti-abortion statutes often believe they can’t provide their patients with the care their patients want, or the care that doctors themselves recommend, when fetuses cannot live outside the womb. As a result, families have been forced to carry unsustainable pregnancies to term. And they have told us their stories.

We know, beyond doubt, that when lawmakers insert themselves into the private decisions of families who are forced to end wanted, but unsustainable, pregnancies, they cause nothing but more heartbreak. Because laws—and these lawmakers—are not built for nuance. They are built for cruel and cold rhetoric, only meant to appease Texas’ far, farther, farthest right-wing voters.

Schaefer’s proposal, which was tacked on as an amendment to a bill about the bureaucratic operations of the state health department, as if it were some kind of especially abhorrent afterthought, affects just one group of people. It targets Texans who don’t want their dying fetuses—or, perhaps, their babies, if that’s the language they choose to use, and on which subject I defer entirely to families going through this difficult process—to be born, only to suffer for minutes, hours, or days.

Those Texans, under Schaefer’s proposed rule, have no choice but to suffer. Because Matt Schaefer’s God says that they, uniquely, must.

Texans who want to go through the birth process with an unsustainable pregnancy are already legally allowed to do so—and that’s a wonderful, beautiful thing. Texans should be not only allowed, but empowered, to make these decisions without the heavy-handed input of state lawmakers.

I would rebuke any law that forced pregnant Texans to terminate a pregnancy against their wishes. By the same token, I abhor a law that forces a grieving Texan to labor, and labor, and labor—when they knew they could have assuaged that suffering according to their own conscience or their own faith, had fate been more geographically amenable, or had they the means to travel out of state.

We could get into the physical consequences of state-compelled gestation: the fact that a dying or dead fetus could put the life of a pregnant Texan who becomes septic in danger, or that it could affect their future fertility. Those are real risks. They shouldn’t be ignored.

But the next (il)logical step, for Matt Schaefer and lawmakers who think as he does, would be to say that the death of a pregnant person from sepsis is simply the penance for sin. That infertility is a punishment from Godpunishment for the actions of all humans, since time immemorial. I will not walk down that gruesome road.

Because I don’t need a pregnant Texan to be on the verge of death—the remaining exception for allowable post-20 week abortion care under Schafer’s proposed law—to trust their ability to make their own decisions about when, or whether, to end an unsustainable pregnancy. I don’t need that Texan to be threatened with infertility to know that men like Matt Schaefer have no right to play politics with their lives.

Just four Republicans voted against Schaefer’s amendment, including two physicians: John Zerwas (R-Richmond) and J.D. Sheffield (R-Gatesville). Sheffield, in particular, implored his fellow GOP members to vote against it, saying that GOP lawmakers “have not been the ones taking care of the babies with the feeding tubes,” or who are sustained on machines or with artificial nutrition.

“I’m not saying those babies are less of a life for our God to treasure or less of a life for us to love,” implored Sheffield. “That is not the argument.”

He continued, asking, “Why should the heavy, blunt hand of government come into that most heart-rending decision?”

Why? I’m sorry to say that I believe I know.

It is because GOP lawmakers think they need to win primaries at all costs, and they feel that they need to pander to the state’s most conservative voters—voters who are already allowed to carry pregnancies with life-incompatible fetal anomalies to term, if that is their choice—in order to do so.

I know this because while Texas house leaders considered the procedural point of order that eventually resulted in the entire bill, including Schaefer’s amendment, being blessedly pulled down, the house’s Tea Party contingent gathered for a very public prayer on the house floor. They made sure everyone got a good look, preening and pandering to the smartphones and news photographers in the room. We’ll almost certainly see photos of that prayer huddle again come election season, as Tea Partiers glom on to Schaefer’s ghoulish version of Christianity.

Maybe the Tea Party bible doesn’t read the same as mine. When I look up Matthew 6:5, it reads: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.”

The reward, I suppose, would be another successful primary win. The penance? Well, that’s to be paid by someone else.

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