Word on the street is that Personhood Colorado is once again trying to get a fetal personhood amendment on Colorado’s 2012 ballot, despite getting soundly defeated twice before, in 2008 and 2010. And when I say soundly, I mean by a 3-to-1 ratio. Personhood amendments make even moderate pro-lifers uneasy.
We’ve been building up to this, though, and it’s easy to see its germination in retrospect. It started in earnest in the early oughts with the Unborn Victims of Violence Act. Although the act is more closely linked to the 2002 Laci Peterson murder, noted asshole Lindsey Graham introduced it to Congress in 1999, which is how you know it was never intended to be a bill protecting women. (Lindsey Graham hates women.) Like a lot of other anti-abortion measures disingenuously claiming to be for women’s benefit (we’re looking at you and your hospital-admission requirements, Arizona and Mississippi), this one seems to be coming from a place of concern. Although statistics on the homicide rate of pregnant women are difficult to come by and sadly limited, homicide is the third leading cause of death in pregnant women after pregnancy complications and accidents. Instituting extra penalties for the murder of a pregnant woman is reasonable, right?
The furor over the Scott Peterson case threw Graham’s proposal into the limelight, and in 2004 President Bush signed the bill into law. A handful of states had previous had similar measures, but in the early oughts it exploded across state legislatures as well: 27 states now have fetal protection bills during all of pregnancy, and 9 more post-viability. All of which means that murdering a pregnant woman counts as a double homicide in 36 states and on the federal level.
What this has done, though, is create the precedent that there is a discrete human being in the womb. In fact, pro-lifers point to the fetal homicide laws as evidence that we already treat fetuses as people in some aspects of the law, so why not go whole hog and treat them like full citizens? Personhood amendments are the right-wing’s attempt at codifying this belief into law, and they have been growing in popularity. Colorado and Montana look to put it on their ballots this fall, and just yesterday Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) stalled the passage of a bill increasing flood insurance for the hurricane season because he wanted to attach a fetal personhood amendment. Yeah, fuck you, no.
Thankfully, most people are still seriously not on board with the idea of fetal personhood. It was forthrightly put down in Colorado both times it appeared on the ballot, Oklahoma’s Supreme Court declared in unconstitutional in late April, and 58% of Mississippi’s voters — voters living in the most socially conservative state in the Union — rejected it last November. There is a lot to criticize. The wording is unclear, and the implications range from plausible and intensely problematic to the outright absurd. These amendments stipulate that human life begins at the moment of fertilization, which means that birth control preventing implantation is verboten. No IUDs, definitely no Plan B; there are even hardliners who say that the Pill — primarily used to prevent ovulation, but also supposedly provides an unfriendly uterine environment for a fertilized egg — is out. No IVF, either, since that process involves creating a number of embryos, many of which go unused and frozen. They’re people too! Obviously no abortion whatsoever, without even the usual exceptions for victims of rape and incest. The most recently proposed amendment in Colorado explicitly states, “No innocent child created through rape or incest shall be killed for the crime of his or her father.” In fact, last fall, one of the founders of Personhood Mississippi promoted the amendment with a campaign called the “Conceived in Rape Tour.” Charming. (This activist, Les Riley, is also a Christian Reconstructionist and heads a Neo-Confederate organization. Make of that what you will.)
The absurd implications extend outward from there. If a fetus is a human being the moment it becomes two cells, could someone buy alcohol at age 20 and three months? If such a rule were in place, would I have been able to vote for John Kerry in 2004, since I was seventeen and several months? Can I put my eight-weeks-along fetus as a dependent on my tax forms? How do we gauge population and voter districting? These are ridiculous questions asked by critics of the amendment, but it showcases what a governmental clusterfuck such a law would provoke.
But to a certain extent those questions only obscure the real point of these amendments, which is an increased policing of pregnant women’s bodies and the denial of women as anything but potential and current incubators for these apparently full people in our wombs. The next step from fetal personhood is criminalizing miscarriages, and don’t think that hasn’t already been placed on the table. Last year a Georgia state rep proposed a bill that would require a criminal investigation into every miscarriage, and I am sure I don’t need to explain how problematic that would be. Beyond the emotional damage to a women treated as a criminal after an already emotionally destructive experience — an experience that occurs, remember, in about a quarter of all pregnancies – it would prevent women from seeking out appropriate medical care after such an event. Thankfully, this particular egregiousness is mostly confined to the fringe elements; this Georgia rep also frequently introduces bills attempting to get Georgia back on the Gold Standard. But the idea itself is out there, and it’s dangerous.
The personhood zeitgeist has invaded states in ways markedly deleterious to the very fabric of women’s rights in this country. Although the amendments keep failing, lawmakers are doing their best to create a friendly environment for sneaking it into law regardless. More and more women are getting arrested for child neglect during pregnancy. The tragic case of Bei Bei Shuai in Indiana is only one example of the direction things are moving. Dumped by the father of her child during her pregnancy, she tried to commit suicide. She survived but her fetus died, and she has been charged for its murder. She was recently released on bond after spending a year in jail, but her case has yet to go to trial.
And it’s not just Shuai. Dozens of women in Alabama have recently been charged with child neglect and chemical endangerment for abusing drugs while pregnant and/or giving birth to children with drugs in their system. (“Chemical endangerment” is a law intended to prosecute people with children running around their meth labs.) Look, I agree that giving birth to children addicted to or otherwise affected by drugs and alcohol is reprehensible, but arresting these women and taking them away from their families does more harm than good. Studies have shown that illegal drugs like cocaine and amphetamines are on the same level of danger as tobacco use, nowhere near as destructive to fetal development as alcohol, and that the shock of withdrawal is ultimately worse for a pregnancy than continued moderate use.
It’s clear that the best thing for children, born and fetal alike, is greater access to and funding for social services. Offer reputable and affordable drug rehabilitation for everyone; educate people; improve quality of life in general and offer access to affordable health care. Punitive measures make things objectively worse. Obviously this isn’t about children but rather about punishing and dehumanizing women. How long before we’re all “pre-pregnant” and have to constantly watch what we do and consume? As a great sage once said, if I wanted the government in my vagina, I’d fuck a senator.
(Whoops, I said the vee-word.)
(x-posted to Carpet & Drapes)