On Fetal Personhood

via Technorati.com

There is a new front in the assault on women’s right of self-determination. That sounds over-dramatic to say. I wish it was. But in fact there is a movement at work in this country to put women’s rights to make medical choices for themselves, specifically during pregnancy, in severe jeopardy. It’s disguised as yet another means of banning abortion but it goes much further that that.

I was reading in Salon about the so-called personhood measure that will be on the ballot in Mississippi. This measure would redefine what it means to be a person in the state’s constitution.

The language of Initiative 26, which would change the definition of “person” in the Mississippi state Constitution to “include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the equivalent thereof,” is more than just an absolute ban on abortion and a barely veiled shot at Roe v. Wade — although it is both. By its own logic, the initiative would almost certainly ban common forms of birth control like the IUD and the morning-after pill, call into question the legality of the common birth-control pill, and even open the door to investigating women who have suffered miscarriages.

Drink that in. Think about that. A fertilized egg as a person. A zygote as a person. An embryo, a fetus, as a person. A person entitled to all the protections of the law.

What does that mean for women? What of a woman’s personhood?

We begin with sexuality, where hormone treatments such as the Pill, IUDs, the ring, the patch, can be construed as causing harm to an embryo – zygote, really – because there is a theoretical possibility that an egg can be released and fertilized but prevented from implanting by the hormones in the treatment, therefore harming the “person.”  So, those treatments, either as contraception or to manage other conditions, could become unavailable, thus making pregnancy prevention more difficult for the individual responsible for her sexual behavior and not ready to be a mother. And the morning after pill would also fall into this new legal quagmire and potentially be banned, thus ending the fallback for women whose primary birth control failed or the woman who has non-consensual sex.

And of course, elective abortion would be banned. But you knew that already.

Then there is the horrible morass of the health of a mother in pregnancy. If it is not permissible to harm an embryo, can a mother receive medical treatments that are known to harm embryos? Or would a woman be forced to forego treatment because the potential harm to the embryonic “person” is illegal? In the case of an ectopic pregnancy, could the pregnancy be removed before fetal death and before a tubal rupture? Or is that murder? Would the the “personhood” of the embryo outweigh the personhood of the woman? Would its needs outweigh the needs of its mother, her partner, her family?

Are we willing to cede the personhood of an adult woman for the primacy of the personhood of an embryo? Are we?

And what of the mother who fails to get adequate prenatal care due to financial constraints? Would she be charged with neglect? Or would prenatal care become a state service to prevent just that situation? What about the myriad things that a woman can do that are against the “rules” of pregnancy: would a woman eating unmicrowaved cold cuts, or missing her prenatal vitamin, or sipping champagne at a wedding in her second trimester be subject to reporting to some embryonic protection agency? Would the bartender who gave her the glass or champagne be complicit in attempted assault?

Or would we confine a pregnant woman to a strictly regimented facility where no such mistakes could be made, where she would be prevented, by force if necessary, from harming the “person” within her?

What would happen in the case of miscarriage? Would they all be investigated, would certain things in a medical record raise red flags that could lead to a woman being questioned for suspected deliberate harm to the embryo? Would the medical procedures available to end miscarriages still be available or is the risk of potential harm too great? Will women need to be septic from missed miscarriages before they can get a D&C?

I find it too easy, too possible, to imagine this worst case scenario world where, from the moment of fertilization, whether the woman was agreeable or not, a mother-to-be loses her rights, her personhood, and becomes instead a vessel. A vessel whose rights, whose health, whose well-being are secondary to the rights of the embryo.

A second class citizen.

In theory, women should be protected by a state statute abridging her rights to conduct herself as she pleases in regards her health and welfare before, during and after pregnancy by this portion of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

But these crusaders in Mississippi don’t care. They see women as potential assailants, villains who, if they don’t accept one rigid path of sexual and reproductive behavior, are murderers in the making who will kill children with pills, with surgery, with immoral behavior. And they see nothing wrong with punishing women, impinging on their lives and their liberty, their health and their sexuality.

The troubling facet of this ballot measure is that its intended consequence is passage, followed by court challenges that will take it to the highest court in the land for ruling. A ruling that could overturn Roe v. Wade and undo abortion protections, even if nothing else about the measure stands as written. For the rank and file anti-choicers, such a ruling might be enough ground gained, a reasonable compromise. And I am frightened that to those of us who embrace the full range of reproductive choices, the loss of ONLY abortion will seem reasonable to us as well. Reasonable compared to the loss of all choices, the loss of our own personhood where reproduction is concerned.


  • you are so right about the end game here. The measure reads like a science fiction novel; for a woman to lose only “some” measure of rights to decide what happens to her body may seem reasonable compared with the absurd.

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