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Senator Gary Peters’ Abortion Story Isn’t Progressive, It’s A Reminder Church And State Are Collapsing

We should not have to beg for our lives — literally and metaphysically — because some Americans believe in God.

October 26, 2020

Katie Tandy

he notion that “some things are private” is a dangerous — if totally understandable — impulse, as it annexes some of our most painful and universal experiences to the shadows. The irony being that many of these experiences — like losing a child, by choice or by bodily fallout — are extremely common, even as we whisper, “it’s too personal to talk about.” 

What we lose when we don’t share our stories of vulnerabilities, particularly around bodies and their supposed failings, cannot be underestimated. When we discover others have experienced pain that echoes our own — when our loss is mirrored by other’s stories of loss — that pain is validated and slowly stripped of its shame. 

It’s hard to feel alone when you’re not.

In other words? People sharing their abortion stories is deeply important. As more than 61.8 million people have undertaken abortions since 1973 and an openly anti-abortion, staunchly Catholic judge — Amy Coney Barrett — is poised to become our next Supreme Court Justice, I understand why Michigan Senator Gary Peters shared his ex-wife’s abortion story.

It also made me angry, sad, and frightened that America is in this position, snarled in the failings of our Constitution and an inability to separate Church and State.

About two weeks ago, Peters was interviewed by Elle magazine — an interview being touted as a “first-ever” for a Senator; he told the story of Heidi, his first wife in the late 1980s, who had to have a medical abortion as her life was on the line.

Heidi was four months pregnant when her water broke, meaning the pregnancy was no longer viable; the hospital told her to go home and wait to miscarry naturally, but she did not.

Heidi and Gary went back to the hospital the next day where the doctor told her she should get an abortion as the fetus could not survive without amniotic fluid. Unfortunately, the doctor said, getting the necessary abortion wasn’t an option as the hospital forbade the procedure.  Again he told the couple to go home and hope Heidi’s body would naturally miscarry.

She did not; instead, she grew gravely ill. When they returned to the hospital for the third time, they told Heidi if she did not get an abortion she could not only lose her uterus in a matter of hours, but could die of sepsis due to her advanced uterine infection.

“I recommend you immediately find another physician who can do this procedure quickly,” the doctor told them. 

Peters leveraged his friendship with the chief administrator at another hospital, Heidi was admitted, the abortion was performed, and her uterus and life were saved.

While I respect the political underpinnings of what the Senator is doing — Roe v. Wade is openly on the chopping block — he should not have to tell this story.

Heidi Peters writhing in agony with a slowly dying fetus rapidly infecting her body is not an abortion story. It’s a medical emergency. There is a profound difference between a tale of choice, of self-actualization vis-a-vis a personal decision — to make a mistake or be raped or coerced or find oneself unable to take on the Herculean task of raising a safe, cared-for child, and be able to have an abortion — and a tale of bodily malfunction so dire one nearly dies. 

The Peters’ experience reads like a horror script predicated on a terrifying paradox — two lives must perish for the sanctity of life.

A hospital in a first-world country telling someone they have to die because their already-going-to-die baby can’t be put out of its misery is not a situation determined by medicine, appropriate protocol, or the Hippocratic oath of “do no harm”; it’s dictated by the religious notion that all life is sacred, that to take an unborn life is to spit in the face of God.

Testimonials like Senator Gary Peters’, as moving as this story is, push us — ironically — further and further away from where America needs to be. This is not actually an abortion story, this is a cautionary tale about what happens when the boundaries between church and state collapse — a disintegration rapidly advancing.

A hysterectomy coupled with a slow painful death are not the circumstances in which we should consider abortion. An abortion is necessary if a person deems it necessary. Full stop.

The First Amendment is a real doozy, protecting the right to assemble, speak freely as an individual or as a publication, and worship within your chosen faith:

 “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

In regards to religion, the verb to hang your hat on in the first amendment is exercise — this is not just about quietly praying to Mecca or pouring through the Bible on your lunch-break. You can take to the streets and bellow out your condemnations from sunup till sundown; exercising religion is active and accompanied by complicated protections.

The Federal Register — The Daily Journal of The United States Government — has this to say about securing religious freedom:

“Religious liberty is a foundational principle of enduring importance in America, enshrined in our Constitution and other sources of federal law...Religious liberty is not merely a right to personal religious beliefs or even to worship in a sacred place. It also encompasses religious observance and practice. Except in the narrowest circumstances, no one should be forced to choose between living out his or her faith and complying with the law.”

Right, OK. So as illustrated by the now infamous “gay cake incident” — in which a baker would not create a confection for a homosexual couple due his religious doctrine and the Supreme Court ruled in his favor — the First Amendment protected his (bigoted) observance and practice.

But on the other side of this troubling coin is the fact that the first Amendment also protects the inverse, ie, the government cannot impose one set of religious beliefs — or religion at all — on American citizens. 

“But that’s undeniably what abortion bans are doing,” writes Rachel Laser for the Chicago Tribune.

“The religious freedom enshrined in our Constitution is not meant to be weaponized. If the government makes me bear the cost of your ‘religious freedom,’ then it prefers your religion to mine. And the First Amendment forbids the government from playing favorites.”

When the Detroit hospital forbid Heidi Peters from having an abortion, they were violating the First Amendment; they were forcing someone to endure physical pain and potential death to honor their religious expression. When Gary Peters posits his abortion story as a reminder “for folks to understand families face these situations every day,” alarm bells should ring and ring and ring. This is not a celebratory moment, a story designed to destigmatize the human body, its vulnerabilities, and to remind us the path to pregnancy can be a very painful one. (Like Chrissy Tegan’s miscarriage for example.)

This story does not do the important work of normalizing abortion or protecting bodily autonomy; its extremity and pain only serve to remind us how terrifying it is that we have to gut ourselves on a public altar to beg to be human. 

Bridgette Dunlap at Rewire insists we should be looking at the 5th and 14th Amendments to see where our Constitution has been compromised, quoting Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which predicated its now 25-year-old stance on abortion rights on “liberty.” 

“It was settled law prior to Roe that liberty includes ‘the right to make family decisions and the right to physical autonomy…' It is a promise of the Constitution that there is a realm of personal liberty which the government may not enter." 

Using the force of law to compel a person to use her body against her will to bring a pregnancy full term is a violation of her physical autonomy and decisional freedom—which the Constitution does not allow.

I worry we have grown so tired that we’re seeing mirages; we’re seeing stories like Heidi Peters’ as progressive, as the celebration of feminist ideals on a national stage amid a hugely important and divisive election season.

And don’t be mistaken. Amy Coney Barrett is poised to codify — sanctioned by bastardized Originalist readings of our Constitution —  anti-abortion laws that are part and parcel of a Christian nationalist agenda.

As Americans United — a non-partisan advocacy group championing the separation of Church and State — reminds us:

  • “This legislation stands as a powerful testament to Alabamians’ deeply held belief that every life is precious and that every life is a sacred gift from God.” — Alabama Republican Gov. Kay Ivey after signing the state’s abortion ban into law on May 15, 2019.

  • To stand on this floor and say, ‘How can someone look at a child of rape or incest and care for them?’ I can say how we can do that. We can do that with the love of God.”  —State Rep. Holly Rehder, explaining her support for Missouri’s abortion ban in 2019.

And finally we have the dangerously “likeable” Amy Coney Barrett, a devout Catholic who has openly expressed her intent to overturn Roe. v. Wade on religious grounds, which she will codify using specious and Draconian interpretations of the Constitution, continuing the collapse between Church and State.

The two-page, 2006 ad from St. Joseph County Right to Life signed by
Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett.

“Barbaric” is what she called abortion, but destroying the boundary between Church and State — denying humans choice over their own bodies, bringing 47 million unwanted children into this world — makes brutes of us all.

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