Commentary: Women should decide what happens after an abortion

Texas officials are again in court defending yet another medically unnecessary anti-abortion law. But this new law isn’t just the latest effort by politicians to interfere with the right of women to make their own health care decisions; it also tramples over the varying faith perspectives and beliefs around the issue.

Senate Bill 8, which the Legislature passed last year, requires abortion facilities specifically to bury or cremate any cells or other fetal tissue after a procedure, regardless of the faith beliefs or wishes of the woman. A federal judge is currently considering the constitutionality of that requirement.

I am a rabbi and social worker, serving my Reform Jewish community for six years. I have tremendous gratitude toward the medical community for helping me safely conceive, carry and deliver my three beautiful children in a state struggling with a serious maternal health and mortality crisis. And, I firmly believe our laws should respect the dignity and autonomy of women when it comes to our reproductive health care.

As a religious leader, I often counsel my congregants during the most joyous and painful times of their lives. I do not judge their decisions surrounding their medical care. Therefore, I do not determine when or how a woman deals with the end of a pregnancy; I simply respect the varying emotions an individual or couple is experiencing, offer tradition and rituals, and walk with them on their journeys.

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I expect this same level of respect from leaders of all faiths. But, too often I see political leaders impose their own faith beliefs on those who don’t share them, particularly regarding the treatment of women.

For Jewish women, this new law creates a great deal of distress because it is incompatible with our beliefs around when and if a fetus should be buried. We also differ greatly with some of our Christian neighbors on when life begins. Jewish rituals surrounding the loss of an unborn fetus vary tremendously, providing a woman and her partner the ability to work with their rabbi to decide if any rituals at all will be observed.

For example, I often counsel women experiencing grief and loss after a miscarriage or a stillbirth. I have heard stories of women being asked, just minutes before their procedure, to decide how they would like their fetal remains to be buried.

Just recently, I met with a woman who was notified months after she lost her fetus that the tissue from her miscarriage was buried in a Catholic cemetery. She was devastated by the shocking disregard for her personal beliefs. Was she now expected to mourn the loss of a fetus that according to Jewish law, as well as modern medicine, was not viable to begin with?

This new burial law offers no exceptions for women whose faith beliefs are different from the politicians who passed it. That’s largely because the law’s real purpose is to honor only one religious tradition, which by default shames and stigmatizes all women who have an abortion.

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In fact, abortion providers are the only medical facilities required to comply with this regulation. The law doesn’t apply to other procedures that involve embryos, like in-vitro fertilization or even medication abortions. Moreover, the law bars a woman from donating the fetal tissue after her abortion to a medical research facility.

For years now, in a series of legislative sessions, politicians have passed new regulations designed to make it harder for women to access abortion and shame them when they do. The Supreme Court has already struck down some of these measures as unconstitutional. This new law should be struck down as well.

Let’s be clear: Discouraging women from making medical choices that are right for them is an affront to their dignity and the freedom to live their lives based on their own values.

I trust women to control their own reproductive health care, including when they access safe abortion care. When politicians create barriers for women to receive the medical attention that they need and deserve, they ultimately put the lives of our mothers, sisters and daughters at risk.

Texans of all faiths and backgrounds should be able to make the decisions that are best for them, based on their own beliefs – not those imposed on them by politicians.

Cohen is associate rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Austin.

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