The XX Factor

Personhood Laws Are Even Weirder Than Imagined

Margaret Hartmann at Jezebel reviews an NPR segment on these new “personhood” bills being considered in states such as Alabama and Mississippi.  Personhood bills intend to enshrine into law what I call the male-centric view of baby-making, the belief that a man creates a baby by ejaculating and that a woman’s contribution of nine months of pregnancy and childbirth are just a delivery system for the man’s efforts.  They do this by declaring that fertilization is what makes something a “person,” even though fertilization occurs before pregnancy begins and an estimated half of fertilized eggs never even attach to the uterine wall.  You could be the mother of dozens and not even know it, ladies.

Even some anti-abortion groups oppose personhood bills, not because they disagree with the aims of the proponents—who want to ban all abortion, IVF treatment, stem cell research, and many forms of contraception—but because it’s bad and confusing law.  And part of the reason for this is that it creates a lot of confusion over the gap between belief and fact.  For instance, it’s clear that many supporters of personhood laws hope the laws can be used to ban hormonal birth control and IUDs, which they argue work by killing fertilized eggs.  However, attempts to use the law in this way are complicated by the fact that this is not how these contraception methods work; hormonal methods work by suppressing ovulation and IUDs work by making the uterus a hostile environment for sperm (which isn’t going to do much to quell the emasculation concerns of anti-choicers). Realistically speaking, if you believe fertilized eggs are “people” and losing one is equivalent to losing a child, then women who use the pill to prevent ovulation are actually the least murderous amongst us, since they are losing the fewest number of fertilized eggs.  Using these laws to stop the distrbution of these kinds of contraception would likely depend on a number of factors, including judges’ willingness to treat made-up beliefs as equal to scientific information.

There’s way more at stake than even abortion and contraception, in fact.  The haziness of these bills could create all sorts of nightmarish scenarios. For one thing, they would absolutely make IVF illegal, but it would also call into question how you handle all the embryos that have already been created in labs.  With IVF being banned, it’s pointless to keep them around anymore, but disposing of them is killing “people.”  Are we prepared to throw people in jail for this?  There’s also a concern about how miscarriages are handled once you’ve determined that a “child” has been lost every time a woman miscarries, no matter how early in her pregnancy. These laws open the possibility of every woman miscarrying being detained for a legal investigation to determine if she has criminal liability for miscarriage. If you think I’m being ridiculous about this, consider that women are already being thrown in jail for giving birth to babies that don’t survive. Personhood laws could roll back the clock on your criminal liability to before you were even pregnant. Unfortunately, there are zealots in law enforcement that are willing to throw a woman who miscarries at eight weeks in jail because someone saw her drinking in a bar six weeks ago, before she probably even knew she was pregnant.

And because under personhood laws, it’s possible that you’ve got a “child” before you are even pregnant, these laws could be used to restrict women’s rights and movements just on the grounds that they might have a fertilized egg inside them that hasn’t implanted yet.  A law that states that your society can have people in it that aren’t detectable by ordinary scientific instruments opens the door to all sorts of weird legal abuses.