Mississippi’s Amendment #26: Personhood For All (Unless You’re Female)

My parents always seemed to have stricter rules for me than they did for my brother. They seemed less worried about where he went and who he went with, and what time he came back. As a teenager, I realized the reason.

I’m a girl.

The world is a more dangerous place for girls.

One evening, shortly after I got my first driver’s license, I asked to take the car for an evening run to the local drugstore, a place I’d been going all my life with my parents. My parents consented, but stipulated that I take my younger brother with me, so I would be safe.

It was small moment, and I doubt anyone else remembers it. But to me, it represented an important and challenging perception shift, especially to the mind of an oldest child, used to greater responsibility at home. My brother had reached a level of adult mobility and security greater than my own, not because of maturity, but because of his gender.

To this day, my mixed feelings about this and similar decrees from my parents do not mean that they weren’t right. My work often requires me to walk around the city and take public transit alone late at night. When I’m waiting for the bus at 10pm and a drunken man weaves his way toward me, I would never object to having my brother there, but we live in different states now.

You can hardly go a month downtown without a cautionary news item about a string of assaults targeting women. I’ve seen purses snatched and I don’t listen to my iPod when I walk downtown anymore, lest I seem like a handy target. I often worked late at my former job, and I was supremely grateful to a male co-worker who, without being asked, walked me to my street-parked car after dark whenever we clocked out together.

The world is more dangerous for women.

I don’t usually let this fact get me down. I acknowledge reality, practice confidence and common sense, and accept help when I need it. Lately, however, I’ve been growing quietly distraught over a burgeoning risk to my safety as a woman – and not from lowlifes on the street.

The Mississippi “personhood” initiative, an amendment to the state constitution which is coming to a vote on November 8th, is among the most insidious political movements of American history.

In case you’re not familiar with the controversy, anti-abortion and anti-contraception activists have a renewed chance at a different avenue for their agenda: not specific laws which directly affect funding, clinics, counseling or medical practices, but a broad amendment to a state constitution that would redefine the legal status of the human zygote itself.

Initiative #26, if enacted by Mississippi voters, would redefine the term “person” to “include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.”

Lest you think this movement is limited to one southern state, according to a recent Bloomberg article, similar movements are gearing up in Ohio, Nevada, California, Colorado, Arkansas, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Nebraska, Alabama, Wisconsin and Michigan.

As some members of the population erupt with the ensuing legal ramifications of such an amendment, pro-personhood initiative groups pretend that the practical human implications are impossible to predict.

For example, a blog titled “Bioethics and Cloning: How Does Amendment 26 Affect Contraceptives and Cloning?” claims that the amendment “does not even attempt to deal with every possible scenario.” The legislature and courts “will still have to wrestle” with “some forms of birth control”. It’s a surprisingly ambiguous statement from a blog whose very title implies answers about the amendment’s impact on the availability of birth control.

The amendment’s likely impact on women’s access to contraception, including some forms of the pill, is a hot issue. But legal and medical professionals also worry about a range of other implications, including a ban on In-Vitro Fertilization and a total ban on abortions even in the case of rape, incest, or danger to the mother’s life, as in ectopic pregnancy. Under strict interpretations of the law, each of these procedures could be prosecuted as murder, with both treating physicians and affected women at risk of being arrested.

Perhaps worst of all, personhood initiatives are beginning to justify prosecuting women who have miscarriages or stillbirths. In June 2011, the Guardian reported on the Mississippi case of Rennie Gibbs, who in 2006 became pregnant at 15, but lost the baby in a stillbirth at 36 weeks. When prosecutors discovered Gibbs had used cocaine, they charged her with murder, though there wasn’t evidence that drugs had caused the stillbirth. She faces a life sentence.

Just this year, Bei Bei Shuai, a pregnant Indianapolis woman, distraught after her boyfriend left her, attempted suicide by taking poison. She survived with hospital treatment, but later gave birth about two weeks prematurely. When the baby died days later, Shuai was arrested and charged with murdering her baby through her suicide attempt.

These aren’t the only such cases, but they are sufficiently chilling.

In their urgency for the so-called sanctification of every human life, Amendment 26 supporters have handily forgotten that women are people too. It seems that the only female people with all of their rights intact would be the the ones who are still in the womb.

It’s easy to see some of the brutal intrusions into personal and family life if women are denied access to contraception and fertility treatments, if they cannot choose to end a pregnancy that is the result of rape or incestuous abuse, or if they’re denied the ability to preserve their own lives and health in the case of high-risk pregnancies.

But other sinister implications are also become clear in a necessary component of the Amendment supporters’ arguments, when they emphasize the separateness of mother and fetus to prove the fetus’s right to full legal status.

The website for Personhood Ohio emphasizes the biological distinction between fetuses and mothers, to propound the view that the issue should not, in fact, have anything to do with questions of a woman’s right to determine what happens to her own body: the fetus is not part of her.

“The new human being is not part of the mother’s body,” the website argues, because how could one woman have “male genitals, two brains, or four kidneys?” Instead, the “preborn human being” is merely “dependent upon the mother for nutrition.” It’s ironic that in forcing women to recognize a fetus as a legally protected person with rights equal to her own, advocates simultaneously perpetrate a systematic denial of a mother’s ideal connection to her fetus, as she becomes a mere vessel for the baby’s “nutrition”: there is no mention of the mother’s symptoms in pregnancy, or the lifelong sense of identity that may be entwined with motherhood.

This reminds me of nothing so much as a tidbit which crossed my hearing years ago about the history of our understanding of conception and pregnancy. Until the late 19th century, no-one yet understood that conception begins when the sperm enters the ovum. Prior to this, one theory actually held that tiny, fully-formed human beings were contained within sperm, which were then implanted to grow in the female’s womb. In other words, men alone are responsible for creating a new person – the woman is just needed to carry it.

I believe that the implications of Amendment 26, and similar developing amendments, demean women in a similar way, not only stripping them of a necessary sense of human autonomy, but minimizing their role in the birth of their own babies.

According to Personhood Ohio, the personhood debate is not about “personal autonomy”, “women’s rights”, or even “what’s most beneficial to women”. Why are a group of people subjected to terrifyingly methodical denials of their own personhood expected to rise up in empathy for the primacy of someone else’s personhood – especially when the personhood in question is buried, invisible, inside the dehumanized women’s own bodies?

Since I was a teenager, I knew that life might hold more practical dangers for me than for my brother, simply because of my sex. At the Christian boarding academy we both attended in high school, boys were given lax curfews and snuck out with little fear of reprisal. But the girls lived by the clock, facing punishments like being confined to the dorm if they were a few minutes late for any reason.

“Why are the rules so different for the boys and the girls?” I complained to my friend in the boys’ dorm.

“Well, the boys aren’t going to go out and get pregnant,” he replied.

I’m sure that’s not how the official policy was worded. But as a high-school dorm student and as an adult woman, the reason I was subject to harsher rules and the reason modern legislators see fit to deny my rights do seem to come down to what my friend said all those years ago.

I can avoid walking down dark alleys by myself when I’m downtown. But I never imagined that the dangers to me as a woman would come from so many quarters, including a statehouse where attendees chanted “Amen” to the announcement of Amendment 26 (on Halloween night – how appropriate). If this or similar measures are carried by voters in the coming years, the United States will become a dark alley which no woman can exit, and no brother or parent will be able to protect her.

Sources include:

PersonhoodOhio.com
“Louisiana Bill Would Criminalize Abortion Even In Cases Of Rape”
Personhood: Why Beginning Life at Conception Carries Risks, Even for Anti-Abortion Activists
“Outcry in America as Pregnant Women Who Lose Babies Face Murder Charges”
 Bioethics & Birth Control Personhood Mississippi
“Mississippi’s Ambiguous ‘Personhood’ Amendment”
 “Toughest U.S. Abortion Law Nears Passage in Mississippi Vote”
Personhood Mississippi
RebeccaKiessling.com

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16 Comments

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  1. AAAAAACCCCCKKKKKKK! I had no idea this was going down. YIKES. I immediately thought of the implications for home- and midwife-assisted birth: no one would bat an eye if a baby dies in hospital after an unnecessary cesarean section, because everyone knows hospitals are safe places to have babies, right? But should a baby die after being born to a mother who labored in her own home, this law would be down on the mom like a shot for taking such a “risk” with someone else’s life. Never mind that home birth is statistically proven to be as safe or safer than giving birth in hospital (http://www.gentlebirth.org/format/myths.html#Studies). This is another angle in the amendment’s attempts to strip women of the right to their own bodies.

    • When I wrote the blog I didn’t know if readers were tuned into the issue enough for it to be old news, or if there are still folks who don’t know what’s going on. I did not even think of the home-birth implications but I think what you say makes a lot of sense, heaping even more scariness upon this.

  2. This is a brilliant article, thanks for taking the time to write.
    There are incredibly backward and reactionary things going on in Western societies, and this Mississippi vote has certainly been one of the most revolting examples recently. But I don’t believe these strands will prevail in the long run. I wonder how you see things in the U.S., but it seems to me that civil society in general is becoming more and more inventive and resilient. However, the fact that such inroads can be made into modern legislation is shocking enough and should push people to think hard – and to act before it is too late.
    Concerning the discriminatory treatment of girls you experienced, it’s always the same hypocrisy: Male behaviour is looked upon as a natural, unchangeable phenomenon women have to deal with at their own peril. The fact that it is often argued to be natural only shows how deeply entrenched male privilege is. It reminds me of the Islamic veil that is supposed to “protect” women and confers the responsibility for male behaviour on the women, instead of teaching (and, if necessary, forcing) men to treat them with the same respect that they are used to themselves.
    Another aspect is that the incidence of abortion among poorer women has been rising in recent years while it has generally been decreasing (cf. Guttmacher Institute). This means that poorer women are sure to be affected disproportionately again by such decisions.
    To sum it up, if we allow our thinking to go dramatically wrong, all sorts of practical absurdities and cruelties can follow. Sorting out concepts well (like personhood) and building sound, logical arguments is not a luxury pastime, it is a necessity if society wants to stay sane.

    • Always nice to have you weigh in – thanks for your thoughts. You’re right about the unfortunate fact of women dealing with men “at their own peril”. My friend at the dorm, pointing out girls’ ability to get pregnant, has apparently forgotten that she did not get pregnant all by herself.

      Your point about poor women being disproportionately affected by this is right on. I recently read about a 2011 measure in Alabama (I think) which made allowance for a woman to get an abortion if her life was threatened by the pregnancy, but it stipulated that insurance or government funds could not be used to pay for it – the woman would be forced to pay for it out of her own pocket. Also worth mentioning in this vein (which you don’t hear from amendment supporters) is that Mississippi has the highest teen-pregnancy rate in the whole country.

      Your comment about the necessity of sorting out concepts like personhood being necessary to a stable society is right on – I think one way Mississippians could do this is to work out exactly why they’re fired about the sanctity of “every life” when Mississippi still carries out executions.

      Society may generally move toward greater liberality in general, but I think the sad truth is the US is far too bogged down in religious extremism to make that progress.

  3. But.
    What if the unborn truly is a person? Whether or not it *is* a person is a matter of personal belief. There is no way to prove one way or the other. The US is a democratic republic. Which means that the civil rights of an individual trumps majority rule. If the state, for one reason or another, decides that the unborn is a person it is obligated to protect that person’s civil rights.

    On this issue I’ve never bought the argument that abortion legislation is an attack against a woman’s rights over her own body. The legislation is geared towards the rights of the human that woman is charged with protecting. We don’t bat an eye at holding parents responsible for the welfare of infants–even if it means the parents themselves have to suffer in order to provide proper care. A woman cannot legally simply dump her newborn into a trash can because she really doesn’t want it. Really, *exactly* what is the difference between an unborn and born infant? At what point do you make a distinction? Precisely. And where do you find the authority in making that decision on a personal basis without the support of the society in which you live?

    Just to make it clear…I am not speaking in favor of the proposed legislation. I just think that it is important to recognize that “pro-life” people *do* have a very valid argument.

    • Yeah, the whole issue is really challenging and thorny. Something I heard on the news about an exchange between Herman Cain and Rick Santorum (I think) resonated w/ me: Cain said something along the lines of abortion being a personal family choice, and Santorum ripped into him for not toeing the Republican line about the total evil of abortion, saying that you can’t have a private view of abortion that clashes with a legislative stance. But I think you can. While I have never been pregnant (crisis or otherwise), I do not believe that I would personally go through w/ an abortion. BUT I strongly believe that women in that situation should have a legal right to choose (I also believe that even if abortion is wholly outlawed, women will continue to get them – the only difference is that they will do it w/ unlicensed, unsafe practitioners). My personal choice is not synonymous with what should be possible under the law.

      I hear everything you’re saying about the questionable line between abandoning a baby and aborting a fetus. Another issue here, and the real reason I was driven to write this essay, is that the proposed amendment, while being couched mainly as an obstacle to abortion, actually affects so many other realms, and supporters are being really disingenuous about the effects of the proposed amendment. It could prevent the use of certain fertility treatments, prevent the use of certain contraception, force women who have been raped to give birth, put women’s lives in danger if they’re forced to carry a dangerous pregnancy to term, call for the arrest of women who have miscarriages, or to try to prove in a court of law that a woman who miscarried or had a stillbirth “murdered” her baby – how could you possibly do that without a reasonable doubt??…to me, this whole collection of possible outcomes is what is most chilling, not simply the abortion issue.

      Thanks for your response.

  4. This whole ridiculous saga makes me so sad. Especially the part about trying to distinguish the fetus from the mother. The mother is not simply providing nutrition! If that was the case, then any stage of pregnancy would be considered “viable” and we could just hook up the baby to an IV and everything would be hunky dory. Any mother of a preterm baby, or mother who has been put on bed rest to ensure that the baby will have the best chance of making it to term can tell you that there is a lot more involved than just nutrition! The more you separate the two, the worse off each will be.
    I hold similar views to yourself. I am generally against abortions, unless there are circumstances that would threaten the life of the mother. I believe that in instances of rape and incest, the “morning after pill” is extremely valuable. If women are forced to carry unsafe pregnancies, then who will be responsible for the double homicides? If the mother and baby both die will anyone be held responsible? Probably not. But if the mother’s life is saved at the cost of the fetus then she’s going to be arrested? This is ridiculous.

    • Maybe we should think of it the other way around – if the fetus is a person with full legal status, and its mother dies of a pregnancy-related crisis or childbirth, but the baby survives, perhaps we should charge the baby with murder for growing inside her. Ridiculous, I know, but these are the kind of thoughts that this amendment and its ramifications occasion…From what I know, the amendment did not pass in Mississippi, though the vote was close.

  5. Hmm. Have you heard that in Russia the government tried to outlaw abortions several months ago? There were huge public protests against the new law, so eventually instead of a ban the government introduced a mandatory 1 week waiting time.
    Which is ironic, since Soviet Union has already tried that once (outlaw the abortions, I mean). In 1920 abortions were made legal, in 1936 prohibited, in 1955 allowed again. In 1935 the percentage of deaths of pregnant women caused by abortion was 26%, in 1940 – 51%, in 1945-1954 – over 70%, in 1955 dropped back to 50% and continued to decline in the following years. All this statistics was conveniently made public during the recent debates, and I guess the numbers were convincing enough, since the ban wasn’t enacted after all.

    I guess this means you can’t force a woman to carry a child she doesn’t want, but you can help her not to die in the process.

    Personally, I am against abortions, but I think that the way to go is to develop a method to grow fetuses in vitro and make it publicly accessible, after which everyone can just go and get sterilized and delete the word “pregnancy” from all the dictionaries 🙂

    • We should also just design a technological parenting set-up as well, where you just drop kids off at birth and then come back for them 20 years later – that way we won’t have to criticize each others’ parenting methods anymore.

  6. This is an excellently written post. Thank you for presenting this so cogently.

    My thoughts on this issue was that it would not pass since there were still sane people in Mississippi (I was, fortunately, right) and that if it did pass it would be largely unenforceable because the United States Supreme Court has made rulings as to many of these issues and enforcement would be challenged virtually immediately. It would have cost a poor state a lot of money in legal challenges.

    My perception is that younger people tend to be more live and let live than the present generation of voters and lawmakers. In fact, when the boomers die out, I don’t think we’re going to see nearly the level of religiosity in public life.

    Have you noticed that the radicals who espouse these stances are mostly older men? My son-in-law thinks the people in power are mostly nuts and I’d have to agree with him. I think we are at about the height of the crazy religious fundamentalist bell curve. Fundamentalists are, by nature, terrified of change and we live in a time of rapid change they’re totally unprepared for and they don’t have the reasoning ability to deal with it.

    While I would advocate for Roe to be re-decided based on modern science (I surprised myself in law school when I came to this conclusion) I don’t believe it would totally do away with women’s rights if this happened. In a way, if it were overturned entirely, it might be for the best since then each state would develop its own laws and liberal states would continue to have it and others would travel there. It often happens this way when a liberal state abuts a conservative state anyway. Then it would become an issue of Interstate Commerce and one state could not make illegal what was legal in the state in which it occurred.

    Just thinkin’ out loud.

    • Thanks for these great thoughts, and your comments on this essay. For all my fears about burgeoning religious extremism, I do think there’s truth to what you say about older vs. younger generations. Having grown up in an insular Christian community, I do know plenty of young people who hold extreme views, but for the most part I think you’re right that the most extreme conservative stances (blatant opposition to gay marriage, for example) will become diluted simply because the people who espouse the hard line on that will die out.

      You’re probably right about the legal challenges (and their costs), as well. Mississippi, like other states, has plenty of serious problems to sort out already.

  7. Wow. I’m against abortion, but I have always made exceptions for rape and when the mother is in danger.
    What really irks me is the consequences for couples who can’t have children of their own.

    • Yeah, I think this topic is one where it’s important to have some realistic personal leeway – I am also against abortion in the sense that I don’t think I would ever have one myself (though to be fair I have never been in a crisis pregnancy situation), but I think that women who choose it should have protection under the law. A lot of people agree w/ your worry about the impact on couples who are trying to conceive through IVF.

  8. Yeah I’m glad this personhood thing failed. My wife and I had our second child using fertilization treatments. God knows whether Isaiah would even exist now if all of the tinkering with female biology had been outlawed with something like personhood. I actually wrote a piece on this topic too, approaching it from a completely different vantage point: http://morganguyton.wordpress.com/2011/11/10/the-failure-of-personhood-in-mississippi-elsewhere/

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