Most women (and their spouses), whether personally comfortable with abortion or not, don’t automatically think about whether or not they might end up in jail, arrested while in labor or strapped to a hospital bed to undergo a forced Caesarian when they get pregnant. Laura Pemberton certainly didn’t before it happened to her. And what happened to her could just as easily happen to you or a girl or woman you know as a result of the insidious expansion of the “personhood” for zygote movement.
Most people are simply too busy with daily life to pay attention to what radical, personhood-based ideas mean if applied to either themselves or their female partners when they get pregnant. Two weeks ago, after a related post about the ongoing assault on women’s rights, I realized how many people had questions about how the “personhood for zygotes” movement could be real and growing in the United States. If you are unfamiliar with this concept, and you don’t have time to read this post — take time to watch these three videos. Put aside culture war language that deliberately and superficially pits ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’ people against one another and consider the following: The women and families in these videos, many of whom oppose or opposed abortion, came, too sadly, to understand through horrific personal experience why “choice” is actually about freedom.
Video No. 1
In December of last year, while you were working or food shopping or working out or reading to your kids, Republican presidential candidates quietly signed Personhood USA’s Personhood Pledge promising to pursue an amendment to the Constitution that would protect the full inalienable “personhood” rights of zygotes by extending the protections of the 14th Amendment to fetuses from the moment of conception and outlawing any medical technology or practices that inhibit implantation of a fertilized egg.
In addition to creating a petri dish for criminalizing pregnant women, personhood legislation, both overt or disguised, bans most forms of birth control (including pills and IUDs) and in vitro fertilization. Yes, many of these bills outlaw birth control and shut down fertility clinics. The treatment of dangerous ectopic pregnancies becomes a matter of possible imprisonment for doctors and life or death for women experiencing them.
By signing this agreement, these presidential candidates, and those who support the extreme and unprecedented personhood-for-zygotes-based bills in state legislatures, are pledging to do the following:
1. Give the government the right to seize a woman’s body to protect a fetus
2. Empower hospitals and doctors, with government support, to force a woman to bear a child and/or have a cesarean or other medical procedures against her will
3. Criminalize abortion (including all circumstances: rape, incest, life-threatening pregnancy, severe fetal deformity) and certain miscarriages
4. Criminalize stillbirths in some situations (who decides which?)
5. Treat all women of reproductive age as potentially pregnant with related consequences
And, although Mitt Romney did not sign the pledge, when specifically asked during a television interview if he supported its measures his answer was “Absolutely.” (This link, by the way, is also a useful video for illustrating the effects of his ringing endorsement.)
Video No. 2
This video has some overlap, but includes crucial additional information.
Now, I’m not keen on pitting a woman’s rights against those of her fetus. Although useful to understand certain issues, it sets up a false and misleading dichotomy. Gestation, during which a woman chooses to share her body in complex, fully integrated ways, is the exact opposite of separation. Women are not separate from their fetuses. A key strategy of this movement is to pretend that they are and to enshrine that idea in dangerous laws. Women are not production facilities or vessels or any number of other updated variations of spermist theory homunculous container. But, because of the constructs being established by this movement on “behalf” of zygotes, a hospital can waive your right to life, in violation of your or your family’s instructions, to save your fetus. Yes, like Melissa Rowland, you can be charged with murder if you exercise your right to informed medical decision making.
Ms. Rowland was charged with murder after one of her twins was stillborn, allegedly as a result of her decision not to have cesarean surgery two weeks earlier. Yes, you can be imprisoned like Bei Bei Shuai, a woman living in Indiana who attempted suicide while pregnant (committing suicide is not a crime, by the way). Friends managed to save her, and although Ms. Shuai did everything she could, including undergoing cesarean surgery, her newborn died shortly after birth. She was arrested and charged with murder and attempted feticide and locked up without bail. (A Free Bei Bei petition was recently launched on Change.org.) Your 11-year old daughter, if raped and pregnant as a result, would be forced to carry the pregnancy to term or face criminal charges. I don’t have the time or space here to go into what happens to a pregnant woman who is already incarcerated. Consider Amanda Kimbrough, a woman struggling with meth addiction, convicted of chemical endangerment under a statute making it illegal to bring a child into a meth lab. She is only one of more than 40 women in that state alone imprisoned for substance abuse while pregnant. The salient aspect of their persecution is not their drug use, it is their pregnancies.
Just to make sure men don’t feel excluded from this oppression party, there is some paternalistic spillover. There are ongoing cases where men can be charged with neglect for not “making” their pregnant partners undergo treatment for addiction.
Which brings us to a really important point: The fact that the personhood movement is openly seeking to institute a theocracy does not mean that there aren’t deeply religious men and women who recognize the implications of what they are doing and reject them.
The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, which was founded in 1973 is a case in point. The coalition includes a broad and diverse interfaith group who understand the profound issues related to “choices.” Consider this last video, produced by Atlee Breland and the Parents Against MS26 organization during Mississippi’s personhood bill debate.
Video No. 3
What no one seems to remember, because of the misleading reductionism of “pro-choice v. pro-life” rhetoric, is that the real issue here is equality before the law and freedom. That is also why this is not a matter of religion; it is a matter of individual choice and freedom, of making sure that women have the right and freedom to make medically sound decisions to stay healthy, safe and alive and care for the people around them. These are the explicit and clear criteria that the vast and overwhelming majority of women usewhen determining when and how to reproduce.
Lynn Paltrow, the executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, founded the organization to protect women’s rights and dignity, particularly pregnant and parenting women and those who are most vulnerable usually low-income women, women of color, and women who are substance dependent. Why her name is not a household one is beyond me. Melissa McEwan, who earlier this year started a Personhood for Women petition suggesting that “a person identifying as a woman and/or having a uterus shall retain all of the full, basic, and fundamental rights of a U.S. citizen” understood the danger, too.
Personhood-based initiatives are being introduced, debated and passed across the country. Last week, in an attempt to end run an overtly “personhood” failure, the Arizona state Senate passed what the ACLU has described as the most extreme bill of its kind. The bill not only moves to ban abortions after 20 weeks (that would be 1.5 percent of abortions, usually those most deserving of kindness and sympathy for the people involved) but also seeks to extend the definition of pregnancy to include the two weeks before conception — that would be while a woman has her period. The implication, as Amanda Marcotte pointed out in RH Reality Check, is that “they’d simply prefer a situation where all women of reproductive age are considered to be pregnant, on the grounds that they could be two weeks from now.”
Personhood legislation leaves no room for medical and personal nuance. The organization is passionate, divinely mandated and literally on a “mission.” It is gaining momentum every day.
In addition, as Paltrow and Emma Ketteringham recently pointed out in this article: This is not just a legislative concern, but also a judicial one. “If judges decide that the homicide law permits the prosecution of a teenager whose fetus is stillborn because of drug use, then all pregnant women who suffer such losses can be prosecuted for the crime of homicide. This is because such a decision isn’t about being a teenager or using drugs — it is about a personhood measure: redefining eggs, embryos, and fetuses in such a way as to give the state power to investigate, control, and punish women in relationship to their pregnancy outcomes.”
Think hard about what happens when we create legislative or judicial precedents based on what could happen to a fetus and punishing women for decisions they make while pregnant. For those voting for anyone who signed this pledge or legislators who adhere to its principles, I hope this abandonment of women’s rights is worth lower taxes for Clear Channel communications and the ability to drill, baby, drill.
“Personhood” and feticide laws already on the books in 38 states are insidiously dismantling any semblance of women’s equality and although extreme personhood bills are being defeated, even their introduction makes anything short of their passage, in the form of a diluted version of their original intent, seem like some kind of “gift” that women should be grateful for as opposed to the absurd and truly radical assault on rights that they represent.
The Personhood movement would have you believe this is a simple matter of stopping bad people from selfishly killing defenseless “children.” But, as Paltrow points out in her work, somehow it is women who turn out to be the bad murderous people doing the worse kind of “killing” by having abortions when in actuality it is the same women, you, me, your spouse, your daughter, your best friend, who also give birth to and raise our children. This is how they put it on their website: “Personhood is the new civil rights movement of the 21st century… these are the times that test men’s souls.” That is CORRECT. These are the times that test men’s souls and strip women of their hard-fought for and fragile rights and dignity. Every time a potential president, legislative body or judiciary champions this cause this is what it is committing every girl and woman and family in the country to.
If these are fundamental betrayals of freedom I don’t know what are. “Personhood” for zygotes cruelly subverts the very idea of a culture of life and potentially criminalizes every pregnant woman. Are you really cool with that? Even if you personally would not chose an abortion? The only way to stop this is to understand what is at risk, actively opposed to what is happening and to vote for people who understand what reproductive justice truly means beyond the catch phrases of campaigning. And, although clicktivism has its place, social change requires effective mass action.
Here is what you can do:
1. Share this information and stay informed. RH Reality Check is an excellent and comprehensive source of information.
2. March to protect women’s rights on April 28 in state capitals and Washington, D.C.
3. Donate time and or money to organizations, like National Advocates for Pregnant Women, or these listed on their resource page or here in this list of organizations dedicated to reproductive justice that have recognized these dangers and are working to raise awareness and help women at risk now. There is also a list below.
4. Find out which organizations in your community are doing related work.
5. Don’t vote for people who will hurt you or someone you love by enacting legislation described above.
This piece originally appeared on The Huffington Post, and is cross-posted with permission.