Last month, we witnessed the overturning of Roe v. Wade when the U.S. Supreme Court undid decades of precedent by ruling that abortion is no longer a constitutionally guaranteed right. This decision has been decades in the making, with the anti-abortion movement undermining our reproductive freedoms and healthcare for years, using what may be a surprising tool to achieve their goals–our fear of death.
How the anti-abortion movement co-opts death phobia
The anti-abortion movement has been leveraging our society’s fear of death, and our reluctance to discuss death openly and factually to advance their agenda and scaremonger about abortion.
The most blatant example of their invoking of death phobia is by branding themselves as “pro life.” By doing so they make clear how they want you to think of them – and more critically, people who support abortion. The implication is obvious: abortion is “pro-death” and supporting it is compared to murder. However, medically – abortion is the end of a pregnancy, not the end of a life; as a fetus is not a person and abortion is not murder – neither legally, nor medically. To be sure – people certainly feel differently about their abortions and pregnancy losses and many of them do feel there is loss involved; and while those feelings are absolutely valid, what isn’t valid is weaponizing our immediate and visceral fear of death by branding people who support abortion as associated with it.
It doesn’t stop there. Anti-abortion advocates commonly advocate for laws such as fetal burial laws, which require fetal tissue to be treated the same as human remains, provided with a disposition or “funeral” and buried or cremated, instead of being treated as medical waste as it is in most cases. While these laws are designed to ensnare providers in a nightmare of red tape and logistical hurdles, they also have a more insidious impact which also equates abortion with death. By requiring fetal tissue to be treated like human remains and provided with a “funeral” they want providers and patients to feel like they are ending a life.
These laws also take advantage of our lack of awareness, and the funeral industry’s lack of transparency around death care by exploiting the complicated nature of funerary practices, forcing reproductive health care providers to navigate a cumbersome and often incredibly old school industry. Funerals can be fraught enough to plan for a person, but figuring out what they look like for a fetus brings on an entirely different level of challenges.
At the heart of the anti-abortion movement’s obsession with death is single concept: fetal personhood; explained in A Brief Guide to Fetal Personhood as “the idea that every fertilized egg is entitled to full protections of the law, and is a constitutionally-protected entity separate from the pregnant person.”
Fetal personhood laws center this belief – that life begins at conception, arguing that the end of a pregnancy, under any circumstances, is a death. Take for example, Texas’ SB8 which bans almost all abortions in the state after about six weeks, and criminalizes doctors who perform them. Increasingly, abortion restrictions are also founded on this concept of personhood, taking the form of later abortion bans, mandatory ultrasounds, and waiting periods – laws that are designed to shame patients and entrap clinics in as many arbitrary regulations as they can in order to make providing abortion as difficult as possible.
While voters have been assured that their plan is not to prosecute pregnant people and will instead focus on the doctors who perform abortions, the outcomes of these policies tell a very different story.
The criminalization of pregnancy loss in the United States is a harrowing phenomena that largely impacts marginalized people of color and the poor. For years, pregnant people have been facing prosecution, criminalization, and state surveillance for miscarrying; something that will only become more common now that Roe has been overturned and pregnant people are without the constitutional protections it ensured.
To reiterate: for many who experience pregnancy loss, it is something to grieve or mourn; something that many people experience as a death. But it’s also widely stigmatized and mired in taboo and shame; which makes it ripe for anti-choice lawmakers to co-opt for their own ends. Pregnancy loss, like abortion, like pregnancy and parenting – is a nuanced and personal experience, incompatible with the blunt instrument of legal regulation and criminalization. And as self-managed abortion becomes increasingly more common and more necessary with the lack of availability of in person abortion post-Roe, so will the legal risk of criminalization; while medication abortion is incredibly safe for patients to undergo, the liability lies not in the medical risks but in the reality that pregnant people with historically marginalized identities will be more likely to face criminalization.
It’s truly a perfect storm with providers cast as “murderers” under laws like SB8; pregnant people being held liable for pregnancy losses like they’re a death; and now, the overturning of Roe intersecting with the longstanding criminalization of adverse pregnancy outcomes to create an even more volatile environment for people who need to manage their own abortions – and it could not happen without death-phobia.
How can death positivity help us fight back?
For the answer to that, we have to look to the tenants of death positivity – many of which are centered on being open and honest about death. Removing stigma and taboo from conversations about death disempowers death-phobia, which in turn will disempower the anti-choice movement. If we could have more frank conversations about death and dying, and if we removed the mystery which fuels so much of the scaremongering around it, anti-choice politicians would not be able to manipulate constituents by capitalizing on those fears. It would be much clearer how absurd it is for a movement of people who oppose bodily autonomy to call themselves “pro-life”; the impact and non necessity of things like fetal burial laws, and the prosecution of pregnancy loss would be even more apparent.
Beyond a call to honesty, the tenants of death positivity also call for an acceptance of personal autonomy in death and dying – that your wishes for things like disposition of your remains are respected. These are traditions shaped by so many things in our life; our culture, religion, family – the country we call home, the amount of money we have. Like abortion, and like pregnancy – dying is a deeply personal experience; under the tenants of death positivity, having control over what we do with our bodies in life and in death is central to societal and personal wellbeing.
Finally, embracing death positivity and having more open conversations about death and dying means we will be able to confront the true threats to the lives of pregnant people – like medical racism, abortion restrictions, and poor maternal mortality rates. All of these are actual threats to life, contributing to a culture in which Black women are dying during childbirth at alarming rates, in which people cannot access the prenatal and postnatal care they need to keep themselves and their children safe. Anti-choice politicians do not want us to have those conversations though, because they would reveal them for who they really are: and that too, is the power of death positivity.