Final Update: Thankfully the Personhood Amendment was defeated in Mississippi by a vote of 58% to 42%. It’s a narrow margin, but it is the result of the hard work and sweat of the grassroots activist and local women that turned the tide. They were up against PersonhoodUSA and its rich backers who poured outside funds into the state to try to get this bill passed. The local activists had scant few weeks to break through PersonhoodUSA’s flood of misinformation and propaganda, but they did it. And in doing so they protected not just the rights of women and pregnant people in Mississippi, but in the rest of the US as well. We can’t relax just yet though, PersonhoodUSA has got similar Fetal Personhood bills working their way onto the 2012 ballots in California, Nevada, Oregon, Montana, and Florida. And to add insult to injury, Republicans in US House of Representatives are trying to introduce and pass Fetal Personhood bills as well. We won this fight, but the War on Women still rages on.
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No, seriously, it does. These “Fetal Personhood” bills are terrifying.They’ve been introduced in Ohio, Colorado, Louisiana, and other states, but they have all, thankfully, been voted down by the populace. This year, however, there is one being introduced to the Mississippi ballot and it is expected to pass. Let me repeat that, this horrible, terrifying piece of legislation is expected to pass. And once it’s passed, the bill’s sponsors expect it to be challenged in court and for it to go all the way up to the US Supreme Court and overturn Roe v. Wade, overturning nearly 40 years of feminist progress. This bill is terrifying to me. However this may seem like no big deal or maybe even a good thing for those of you out there who don’t know what Fetal Personhood bills are or who have only heard the anti-abortion rhetoric that glosses over the real ramifications of these types of bills. Please believe me when I say that this is indeed a big deal and that it is also most definitely not a good thing. Allow me to explain:
What is Fetal Personhood?
To begin with, we need a little background information on what Fetal Personhood bills are before we can get into what effects they will have on our country. Most Fetal Personhood bills read something like this:
“The term ‘person’ or ‘persons’ shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.” — from Mississippi Amendment 26
Short, bittersweet, and to the point: these bills rewrite all existing laws, statues, mandates, and rulings so that the term ‘person’ applies from the moment of conception (i.e. when the egg and sperm fuse together, fertilization) onward. Morula, blastocysts, zygotes, embryos, and fetuses would all become legal persons under the law. Attempts to get these bills on the ballots are cropping up in all 50 states, pushed for and funded by Personhood USA, a political organization whose express goal is to see Roe v. Wade overturned. It is amazing (and, again, terrifying) that such a small bill could radically change our society, but it is undeniably true that granting personhood to fetuses would have far-reaching ramifications.
The Immediate Consequences of Fetal Personhood Bills
This bill is designed to do one thing very well: ban all abortions. That’s right, ALL, no exceptions for rape, incest, or even health and life of the mother. It doesn’t matter if your 5 weeks along with no house, no food, no partner, no healthcare, no job, and no way to afford a baby or 24 weeks along with a life-threatening complication, your right to an abortion that would save your life or livelihood has been taken away. Even if you’ve found out you have an aggressive form of cancer that can only be treated with chemo that would harm the fetus your carrying, you’re out of luck because, again, your right to an abortion has been stripped away. Banning abortions puts women’s livelihood, health, and lives at risk.
Of course, banning abortion does not stop women and pregnant people* from seeking out the procedure, it just forces the desperate to try dangerous self-abortion methods or rely on abortion providers who lack the medical training and resources to provide safe abortions. We would find ourselves going back to the days of back-alley abortions, pre-Roe, where 5000 women died annually from unsafe, illegal abortions. Compare that to when abortion is legalized and can be done in a clean, safe environment by trained staff, where the death rate is just .06 per 100,000**. Making abortion illegal KILLS women and pregnant people by the thousands.
The language of this bill was purposefully left very vague, as such it will do far more than just outlaw abortions. Some of these consequences may or may not have been intentional by the bill’s designers, but all of them are very real possibilities if a Fetal Personhood bill is passed.
Because the bill grants personhood at the moment of conception, there is the distinct possibility that most forms of birth control will be banned, including all forms of hormonal birth control (the Pill, the Ring, the Patch, Depro Vera, etc) and IUDs. Even though the hormonal methods and IUDs primarily work by preventing ovulation or making the uterus inhospitable to sperm (thus preventing fertilization) there is also the possibility that they can prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus. If a Fetal Personhood bill becomes law, that would be defined as murder and thus those forms of birth control could become illegal. The only remaining forms would be barrier contraceptives (such as male and female condoms), spermicide, withdrawal, and fertility-awareness methods, all of which are among the least effective forms of birth control. To add insult to injury here, the outlawing of the most effective forms of birth control will cause an increase in unplanned pregnancies, which will in turn cause an increase in demand for dangerous illegal abortions. Women and other people capable of being pregnant will always have a need to control their fertility either because they don’t want more or any children, want to space out their pregnancies to keep their bodies healthy, don’t have the resources to care for a child (or another one if they already have some), an existing condition makes pregnancy exceedingly risky for them, or for any other of a number of reasons. Again, I stress, taking away access to birth control and safe, legal abortion puts people’s livelihood, their health, and even their very lives on the line.
Since this bill grants personhood at fertilization, anything that stops embryonic or fetal development would be considered the death of a person. This opens up the very real, very scary possibility that miscarriages and stillbirths will need to be investigated as potential homicides. I know that seems far-fetched, but there have already been cases of this happening in many states, and that’s even without the impetus of a fetus being legally considered a person. Laws that were originally designed to protect pregnant women from assault and to give them some form of redress for the loss of their fetus are now being turned on the women themselves, and would be with even greater force and frequency if Fetal Personhood becomes law. Grieving mothers would be subjected to murder investigations and allegations that they caused their miscarriage with their reckless ways. Of course, reckless becomes very subjective when it comes to the myriad of reasons why pregnancies might miscarry and can mean anything from drinking coffee, sodas, or alcohol, to taking illegal or legally prescribed drugs, to smoking, to wearing heels and falling down, to being over or underweight, to having a diet not high enough in nutritional value, to not explicitly following doctor’s orders, to not taking enough prenatal vitamins, and who knows what else (and all of this can apply even before you knew you were pregnant). Also, since all of these actions would now be tantamount to child abuse or child endangerment, law enforcement and agencies like CPS would be able to intervene in any number of ways to protect the ‘person’ residing in a pregnant person’s womb, up to and including arrest and forcible medical action (if you think this is an absurd impossibility, it’s actually already happening).
The Extreme Consequences of Following This Bill’s Logic to Its End
As if a huge death-toll from back-alley abortions, or manslaughter charges for stillbirths and miscarriages, or the loss of the most effective forms of birth control weren’t enough, this bill could give license to the government to take things even further. The big question is if Fetal Personhood is enacted in only one or a few states, how are they going to keep pregnant people from going across state lines to get abortions in the next state over where a fetus is still just a fetus? Will there be border patrols and checkpoints in Mississippi forcing people who appear to be women in their child-bearing years to take pregnancy tests? Or would it be easier to just track pregnant people with some form of electric monitoring like they do with criminals on probation or under house-arrest? But then that requires that the authorities already know that the person is pregnant, most likely through a doctor’s appointment. Will doctors now become agents of the state, reporting to authorities who is and isn’t pregnant and thus needing to be monitored? That, though, would make women who have unwanted pregnancies highly unlikely to go to the doctor. Thus, the only way to really ensure the protection of fetal ‘persons’ is to electronically monitor all people who have the reproductive capacity to bear children. Of course, their movements and locations wouldn’t be the only things tracked, forced pregnancy tests would need to be frequently taken from the age of menarche to menopause to ensure no ‘person’ comes to harm through negligence or intentional harm (i.e. illegal abortions).
This is the Reality of this Bill
I know all of this sounds like some fever dream of an anti-choice dystopia, but this is a very possible reality that we, as a nation, are facing. Fetal Personhood is not just an attack on abortion, but an attack on all reproductive choice and reproductive freedoms. The right to choose when you become pregnant, by whom you become pregnant with, how your pregnancy progresses, and how you are allowed to act during your pregnancy will be stripped away if this bill becomes national law. Which, make no mistake, is the end goal of Personhood USA, the organization behind the Mississippi bill. This does not just threaten to turn the clock back 40 years to the times before Roe v. Wade became the law of the land, but creates an even more inhospitable climate for reproductive freedoms by outlawing the most effective forms of birth control and criminalizing pregnancies that don’t end in a full-term birth of a healthy child.
Abortion is not something that anyone takes lightly, it is not done for kicks and giggles or for funsies. It is a medical procedure that is vitally necessary for both wanted and unwanted pregnancies. As both a medically indicated, life-saving procedure and as an elective one, it keeps people and their families safe, happy, and healthy. Reducing the rates of abortions can be a very laudable goal because no one wants to find themselves in the emergency room with a very much wanted pregnancy quickly going south, and no one wants to find themselves stuck between having a child they may or may not want and losing out on life-goals or time and resources for the family they already have. The solution however is not to ban abortion or make it difficult to obtain legally, because like I said earlier, that does not actually lower the rate of abortion, it just increases the complication and death rates from it.Instead, if we really want to lower the abortion rate, we need to work on the underlying issues that cause people to seek them out: we need birth control that is more effective and readily and freely accessible; we need healthcare that makes pregnancy and child-birth affordable; we need affordable child care and stronger parental leave policies; we need more comprehensive sex education; we need more medical technology and knowledge so we can put an end to life-threatening pregnancy complications; we need a culture and law system that actually deters rape and incest; we need many things in this country that could and would reduce the abortion rates, but not one of them makes abortion illegal or hard to obtain.
So please, Mississippi, do not pass this awful bill. Fetal Personhood is not pro-life, it is not small government, it is not pro-family. It is very much anti-family, anti-life, anti-woman, and a step towards big, intrusive government. This bill, and all others like it, put government officials in the middle of the medical decisions of private citizens and puts the lives, health, livelihood, and freedoms of women and pregnant people on the line. Everybody in this country needs to speak out against this bill and its counterparts wherever they may rear their ugly heads. For our mothers, sisters, daughters, aunts, nieces. For our fathers, brothers, sons, uncles, and nephews. For our friends, our families, our freedoms. Do not pass Amendment 26, the Personhood Amendment.
For more information on how to help stop this bill, go to Wakeupmississippi.org or their facebook page.
*It’s not just women that can become pregnant and thus are subject to the consequences of this bill. Abortion is also an issue that impacts transmen, as well as intersex and genderqueer people. Reproductive rights are not just a women’s rigths issue, but a human rights issue.
**That is, by the way, 11 times safe than carrying a pregnancy to full-term, which is, again, why abortion should remain legal, because pregnancy can put people’s lives in danger.
Update 1: Mitt Romney, and other Republican presidential candidates, have voiced support for a federal Fetal Personhood amendment to the Constitution. They also, conveniently enough, tend to gloss over or be ignorant of the fact that this would ban hormonal birth control (or any of the other consequences I outlined above). Check out this Rachel Maddowsegment for more info on this.
Update 2: The National Advocates for Pregnant Women, working with local activists in Mississippi, released this video that explains the harmful effects Fetal Personhood laws have on pregnant women who wish to carry their very much wanted pregnancies to term. Amendment 26 is not just an anti-abortion, it is anti-reproductive rights including the right to give birth free of medical and legal coercion, the right to not have invasive surgeries forced upon your body, and the right to not have your own life sacrificed, against your will, for a dying or dead fetus.
Update 3: More evidence that access to birth control would be on shaky ground if Amendment 26’s Fetal Personhood became law. If the proponents and main backers of this bill are so unsure if birth control will be illegal or not, then you can sure as hell bet that the question will have to be tackled by the state government. By the way, Republican controlled legislatures and conservative politicians have had a pretty sketchy record lately of protecting women’s rights to birth control, reproductive healthcare, medical decision making, or bodily autonomy and self-determination. Do not trust the YesOn26 proponents when they guarantee you that hormonal birth control, IUDs, IVF, or miscarriages will not be criminalized because those topics aren’t specifically mentioned in Amendment 26. It is precisely because of the amendment’s vague language that we face the reality of birth control being considered a lethal weapon and women being prosecuted because they suffered a miscarriage.