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After word surfaced that a conservative nonprofit won a $1.6 million state grant to deliver women’s health services, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro questioned the decision while making a "sewer" claim about the group’s director.
Castro, D-San Antonio, said in an August 2016 tweet: "The group's director believes HIV can be spread through the sewer system. Is it really most qualified for the grant?"
Human Immunodeficiency Virus, which causes AIDS, is mainly spread through sexual contact or from sharing needles, syringes, rinse water or other equipment with someone who has the virus, according to a federal website focused on AIDS. Less commonly, per the site, the virus may be spread from mother to child during pregnancy, by being stuck with an HIV-contaminated needle and, in rare cases, via blood transfusions and eating food pre-chewed by an HIV-infected person.
We spotted no mention of the virus getting conveyed from anything in a sewer pipe. "HIV does not survive long outside the human body (such as on surfaces) and it cannot reproduce outside a human host," the site says. The virus also isn’t spread by air or water, the site says.
Seeking Castro’s factual backup, we heard from his House spokeswoman, Erin Hatch, who emailed us web links to summer 2016 news stories--including an Austin American-Statesman story posted earlier the day of Castro’s tweet about Carol Everett, chief executive of the Round Rock-based Heidi Group, which once ran no-charge crisis pregnancy centers in Dallas advising women with unplanned pregnancies about giving birth. Everett, the story said, "recently came under scrutiny for suggesting during a fetal tissue disposal hearing that sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, could be transmitted through the sewer system."
Everett told the paper, though, that her highlighted comments had been misunderstood.
Everett also told reporter Julie Chang that her remarks about HIV amounted to "a stupid mistake." Chang shared with us her notes from her interview with Everett, who said: "I very much regret what I said. I shouldn’t have even tried… because they misunderstood it. I didn’t talk about transmitting STDs that way. I was trying to talk about the fact that babies are ground up and put into these garbage disposals which goes into our sewers. I didn’t make that point very clearly."
Existing regulations allow fetal remains, as with other medical tissue, to be ground and discharged into a sewer system, incinerated or disinfected followed by disposal in a landfill, or "an approved alternate treatment process, provided that the process renders the item as unrecognizable, followed by deposition in a sanitary landfill."
For our part, we confirmed from a TV news report noted by Hatch and Chang’s recording of Everett’s comments before a state agency that she indeed made mention of HIV and sewers while advocating for state officials to adopt a rule requiring fetal remains to be buried or cremated rather than disposed other ways. The rule was proposed in June 2016 by the executive commissioner of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission on behalf of the Department of State Health Services; it wasn’t finalized as of Aug. 17, 2016.
"What does this really do to the public? There are other people to consider.
"What if one of those sewer treatment programs breaks down one day? You know, the abortion industry doesn’t have time; they only see a woman one time; they do not do an AIDS test, they don’t do, they don’t know if she’s HIV-positive. They don’t know if she has a sexually transmitted disease. And what if one day, just one day, something horrible escaped into the sewer system?" (Laughter.)
"It may sound funny but it’s something we could think about because I can tell you today, the public is thinking about it.
"So I appreciate very much addressing this. I encourage you to uphold it. Let’s take care of those who cannot take care of themselves -- and I am talking about the women."
Earlier, as pointed out by Hatch, Everett said in an interview with Austin’s Fox 7 aired July 7, 2016, that existing protocols for disposing fetal remains pose "several health concerns. What if the woman had HIV? What if she had a sexually transmitted disease? What if those germs went through and got into our water supply?" Everett said.
When we reached Everett about Castro's claim, she said by phone she hadn’t explicitly said HIV is spread through sewer pipes--and doesn’t believe as much. "People with HIV and AIDS go to the bathroom every day," Everett said.
At the state hearing, she said, she was trying to stress that fetal material gets into the sewer system. Everett called her comment to Austin’s Fox 7 about HIV/STD "germs" getting into "our" water supply "really far out. I shouldn’t have said that."
Castro said Everett "believes HIV can be spread through the sewer system."
Everett didn’t explicitly say as much and told us she doesn’t believe it. However, on two occasions, she raised the "what-if" spectre of a woman somehow passing along the virus or an STD through fetal material flushed down a drain.
We rate this claim Mostly True.
MOSTLY TRUE – The statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information. Click here for more on the six PolitiFact ratings and how we select facts to check.
Tweet by U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, Aug. 10, 2016
Web page, "How do you get HIV or AIDS?," U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, last revised Dec. 31, 2015 (accessed Aug. 12, 2016)
Emails, Erin Hatch, press secretary, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, Aug. 11, 2016
News stories, Austin American-Statesman, "Proposed Texas rules: Fetal remains must be buried or cremated," July 7, 2016; "$1.6 million Texas women’s health care grant raises questions," posted online Aug. 10, 2016
News story, "Abortion facilities could face new rules for fetal tissue disposal," Fox 7 News, July 7, 2016
Story, "Anti-Abortion Group Set to Receive Sizeable State Contract for Women’s Health Services," The Texas Observer, Aug. 10, 2016
Story, "Fetal Burial Saga Continues," the Austin Chronicle, Aug. 5, 2016
Proposed rule regarding disposal of fetal tissue, Texas Department of State Health Services, filed with Texas Secretary of State on June 21, 2016
Audio recording, Carol Everett speaking on proposed rule before State Health Services, Aug. 4, 2016 (provided by Julie Chang, American-Statesman reporter)
Telephone interview, Carol Everett, Aug. 12, 2016
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