By: Amanda K. Fox
The personhood bills are among the most potentially frightening pieces of legislation that lawmakers have brought to the floor in many years. What makes them frightening is not just the language they use, but how radically misunderstood what exactly personhood is. No woman, on either side of the political divide, can afford to not know the reality of what personhood means – not only legally, but personally.
In lay terms, personhood means that life begins at conception. Quite a few people personally believe this, but the real issue is the debate over when conception begins. In most states, the push is for conception to be defined as the instant an egg becomes fertilized. In Arizona, however, conception is defined as occurring two weeks prior to fertilization – and that is a law on the books since April of 2012.
With no nationally accepted definition of when conception occurs, this is a messy can of worms to open. The conservative right has their eyes set on a national policy if they can take control politically. This also entails the availability of contraception. The problem with any personhood legislation, uniform or not, is that American women will lose control of their reproductive rights. Give that a moment to sink in because it is not said for shock value.
By the numbers, 62% of all women in America use some form of contraception. Another 7% use nothing and the remainder report being postpartum, sterile, not sexually active or actively trying to conceive. Of those who report trying to get pregnant, most have used some form of contraception at an earlier time or plan to in the future (according to Planned Parenthood.) Personhood bills are intended to minimize Roe v. Wade. Most agree that the decision itself is almost impossible to overturn; however, if enough impediments are in place, legal abortions will be virtually impossible to obtain. This is where the talk of such nonsense as “legitimate” and “illegitimate” rape comes from, as victims of rape and incest have long been an issue that stands in the way of getting Roe v. Wade off the books.
This is the problem women face if personhood bills are passed: miscarrying could technically result in “wrongful termination of a pregnancy” charges in certain situations. It all depends on the interpretation of each case. Personhood legislation endows eggs with civil rights – in some cases, again as with Arizona, even an unfertilized egg (ova) now has civil rights. For all intents and purposes, it has the same legal rights as you do while you are reading this. Since the Arizona version of personhood is the standard that many supporters of the concept are pushing for, let’s examine the implications, even if farfetched, a bit closer.
What Arizona has done with the passage of their personhood legislation is that they have narrowed the window for legal abortions to the slimmest margin in the US. Because pregnancy is assumed to begin the day after a woman’s last menstrual period ends, they have cut the window to about 18 weeks. While that is 4-6 weeks less than the national norm, that is not where everything gets ridiculously tricky.
Because pregnancy is assumed prior to actual conception, women are basically assumed to be nearly perpetually pregnant. Would a fertile woman that drinks in excess be looked upon as endangering her child even if she is not carrying a fertilized egg? Drinking to excess would be damaging to an embryo and if woman did not become pregnant during that cycle, could it be said that the alcohol was to blame triggering a wrongful and illegal termination accusation?
What about a woman that smokes? Carcinogens can impact an embryo and therefore could be considered child abuse? And yes, we are saying embryo, because even if an egg is not fertilized to the standards of science and reality, legally it is a person of a few minutes to couple weeks old. What if you left the state and your husband/lover/potential sperm donor decides he misses the unfertilized egg and claims you kidnapped it? That’s a federal charge! It is, after all, legally a person.
Consider the Mitt Romney viewpoint, in which there is a less restrictive personhood concept. Romney is nominally in favor of allowing abortions in cases of rape, incest or a terminal pregnancy. The problem is, it needs to be a “legitimate” rape and incest must be proved. Why is that problematic?
The problem lies in who determines whether a rape is legitimate or whether an incestual encounter resulted in the pregnancy. Even if a woman does prove she was raped, if she was having normal sexual relations with someone aside from her rapist during the window in which she could be impregnated, can she prove it is the rapist that got her pregnant? To prove rape or incest, a woman must have the wherewithal and ability to immediately report it and preserve evidence for a proper rape kit – even in the case of incest.
From that point, the victim has to deal with the police, then wait for a DNA warrant on the perp (If possible to obtain), a preliminary hearing, and a trial before the defendant’s peers. Does anyone realistically think that will all come down in less than 18 weeks – keeping in mind this is not an episode of Law & Order where everything is resolved at the top of the hour?
Should a “legitimate” rape or case of incest not be proved within the legal abortive window, there are no extensions for obtaining an abortion. The same is true even if it is proved outside the legal abortive window. The woman has to carry the child to term. She does have the option to place the child for adoption.which may or may not happen. Of course, she could opt to keep the child, but that choice comes with its own host of potential problems.
This doesn’t even address the can of worms that is birth control – conservatives wish to make that harder to obtain as well. Illegal, in fact, if some legislators had their way. Even invitro fertilization would become so risky from a liability standpoint that it could potentially go the way of the dinosaur. This is an actual declaration of war on the reproductive rights of women. Curiously enough though, only 50% of the equation necessary to create human life is being held to any kind of standard. No matter how legislation is worded, an ova alone does not create a human – sperm is needed as well and that comes from a man. Sperm is being perpetually produced in fertile males, not cycles, in which ova is available for fertilization in women.
This is the other half of life an ova requires to become a zygote. Why is not included in personhood legislation?
Sperm is not considered a person like an egg, even though it is no more or less impressive than an egg regarding reproductive purposes. Therefore, a man has full reproductive rights of his body. He can masturbate and not worry about violating the law, potentially incurring a charge of child abandonment. He can smoke and drink to excess and not be legally open to the possibility of potential legal repercussions for damage to his reproductive system.
It is understood that this seems far fetched, but in a nation of equals, shouldn’t men and women be held to an equal standard regarding their reproductive systems? It isn’t very likely anyone would charge a woman with child abuse of her unfertilized ova even if they are considered people under the law. We point these scenarios out to demonstrate how poorly thought out and written much of this personhood legislation is.
What is not far-fetched is the fact that women will suffer under personhood laws. Children that otherwise would not exist if their mother’s had control over their reproductive rights may suffer. Couples trying to get pregnant using IVF may find it more difficult and expensive. There is also the question of whether or not all fertile women have to be afforded all the legal rights of a pregnant woman in the workplace along with proper prenatal care by default. After all, that ova may turn into a person one day and no one would want to be held liable for failing to provide proper care.