New York Times headline: “Texas Will Require Burial Of Aborted Fetuses”
Well, of course I had to read the story and see what was going on. This doesn’t sound at all reasonable. Not even in Texas, the legendary home of the liquor store drive-through, beanless chili, and high school football as a religious faith.
And, ya know what? The law isn’t really even a law per se, and it doesn’t require burial. It also isn’t about abortion, except tangentially.
[NOTE: Squeamishness Alert] We don’t like to think of what happens to all the yuk that’s left over after surgery, but someone’s got to. Biomedical waste — anything from contaminated sharps and bandages all the way up through body parts and organs — are, if nothing else, hazardous. They pose an infection risk, and they need to be disposed of properly.
Unfortunately, many states don’t regulate disposal much or even at all. It’s left up to the individual medical practitioner. Most hospitals incinerate, but a lot of waste from smaller clinics just ends up getting microwaved and then sent to a landfill, or ground up and pumped into a sewer. Pretty disgusting when you think about it, but that’s really what happens.
There was, briefly, federal regulation. It was enacted in 1988 after some truly nasty stuff started washing up on New Jersey beaches and made national headlines, and it expired in 1991 once the furor died down. Now, the feds pretty much stay out of it, and many states do too. Wikipedia has a nice article on the subject if you’re interested.
So About The Texas Law
It’s not really a law. And, actually, it’s not even Texas that started this. Other states, including Indiana and Ohio, recently instituted rules changes for the disposal of recognizable human waste. Texas was just one state in a long line.
The reasoning as explained is pretty simple: If a hospital has a corpse, they can’t just toss it in a landfill no matter how cheap that might be. Instead, they must incinerate it. Or, if anyone cares enough to collect it, that person can opt for a burial instead; that’s always allowed.
So the rules have been extended to cover anything that’s recognizable as human, including an amputated arm, for instance, or a miscarried fetus of whatever size. Presumably it also includes complete organs and such, but the initial proposal was buried in 60 pages of legalese and I was hard-pressed to track down even a single readable segment. (Don’t bother; it’s been edited since.)
Bear in mind: This isn’t even a proper law. It’s a rules change for the state ethics commission. No legislator was even remotely involved in this, which is as it should be: It’s about professional ethics for clinics and physicians and the like.
Where The News Stories Began
Last section, I mentioned Indiana and Ohio as places where this also happened. Thing about those states is, both of their governors were more than slightly involved in the recent presidential election. So, of course, there was a ton of partisan outcry against them for every conceivable reason. This included a lot of policy decisions and personal scandal, and it also included a couple of rule changes that the governors had to sign off on.
Don’t remember it? Don’t worry; not many people would. There was a lot of rabid partisanship this past election, and it all tends to fade into the background after a while. But if you’re curious (or masochistic), Google will bring up dozens of articles on the subject, with headlines ranging from the grotesque to the horrific and stories all aimed at the evil white men who were trying to take away abortion rights. (I still have no idea what skin color has to do with all this, but it’s definitely in the stories.) You’ll forgive me if I don’t link to them.
So now the election is over (more or less), and during a slow news day at the tail end of November, some reporter picked up on the governor of Texas signing off on the rules change. Sure enough, the stories started up again. Why? Well, if I had to guess, I’d say it’s because the media loves public outrage; it sells advertising, and that’s their job.
The Argument In Favor
Proper disposal of biomedical waste is a legitimate concern. It’s unlikely that a plague could start given current disposal, or that the rules change will prevent one, but it is after all quite a small change. We can’t expect too much of it.
The thing is, this rule change is not so much about infection as it is about our culture’s approach to death.
Something that’s not often openly discussed: Our society venerates the dead, almost to the point of fetish. We devote vast acreage to cemeteries, and these days most of the graves are never visited. Funerals cost massive sums — often more than the deceased could afford — and yet it seems almost horrific to even suggest that the funeral home might be overcharging for that cushioned wooden box or the brushed-stainless urn. And I won’t even go into the price of a concrete vault, which you absolutely have got to have.
Graverobbing is illegal everywhere. So is cannibalism. Apparently, necrophilia has a few loopholes that permit it, but even if I knew for sure what and where I wouldn’t share them, because it’s just wrong. Which says all we really need on the subject, I suppose.
With all this as a starting position, it’s perhaps reasonable to require that recognizable human remains be treated with a bit of respect, and not merely dumped in a landfill or shipped out to sea. Now, as to where one draws the “recognizable” line — that’s a matter for discussion, preferably by reasonable people in a quiet room a very long way from the nearest tabloid journalist. But apart from that, this fits with our common societal values (strange though they might sometimes be).
The Argument Against
In every story about these rule changes, even the ones on Breitbart and Fox News, someone brings up the unfair burden placed on abortion providers. Which is reasonable; where hospitals usually have incinerators, small clinics rely on other methods of disposal. There is likely to be a corresponding increase in expense. Likewise, small clinics and large hospitals alike will be forced to some degree of inconvenience over this.
The moral argument, as I understand it, runs like this: Should a woman wish to end her pregnancy, she will be subject to a wide variety of societal pressures. Her decision will often be a difficult one, and it is unethical for a state to add to the pressure on her to choose in either direction. Any state-induced unequal pressure on abortion clinics would qualify.
What This Is Most Definitely Not About
For one thing, it’s not about forcing burial for aborted or miscarried fetuses. The New York Times headline is contradicted by their article, which would raise some questions about the unbiased nature of the Times editors if there were in fact any doubt that they’re biased. For one thing, the rules in question have nothing whatsoever to do with any private person; for another, they actually require incineration but permit people to opt instead for burial if they prefer. A spokeswoman for the Texas DHHS, Carrie Williams, is actually quoted in the Times article as stating that the language was specifically written to exclude miscarriages or abortions that occur at home or what have you — even though the rules in question don’t apply to homes, but to hospitals and clinics.
It is also difficult to envision any clinics closing over this, even those very few that exist primarily to provide abortions. There will certainly be a diminution in profit margins, but it’s likely to be small; local hospitals commonly loan out their facilities to area clinics, and incinerators aren’t outside the reasonable here.
Finally, unless someone is seriously misled by the fake headlines that seem to dominate our modern news coverage, it’s hard to imagine this change interfering with any abortion whatsoever.
So What Is It About?
Well, it could be money. Most things are, when you come right down to it; money or power, either one. After all, the people screaming loudest are members of the news media, and they exist to sell advertising. Slightly quieter are political spokespeople; they live on donations, so it’s in their interest to make lots of noise about every issue. Oh, and people on social media who only read the headlines are making wild declarations, as always; that’s not really worth mentioning, though, because it happens all the time.
What’s it about? It’s about getting people upset over a bunch of nothing, as far as I can tell, because they can be persuaded that somewhere someone will get treated unfairly or deprived of their right to an abortion or somehow have their privacy violated. It’s about the media manipulating the American people into being upset. It’s about politicians who want us to hate each other and the other side so they get more donations and more votes. And, yes, it’s about internet clickbait.
Same old story, in other words.
NOTE: The actual code in question can be found in Section 361.0905 at the following link:
Texas Code presently requires all treated medical waste to be deposited in a licensed landfill, not in a sewage outflow. There are some exceptions.