In a Post-Roe World, There’s No Such Thing as ‘Hold Women Harmless’

"Hold women harmless" means nothing when the incarceration of women is the natural result of the fetus-first policies anti-abortion activists champion.

Capitol police surrounded by anti-abortion activists
Anti-abortion advocates want you to believe that they’re just trying to save babies and to protect women. But they’re not—not really. Austen Risolvato/Rewire News Group

I have a dream.

I have a dream that one day I will live in a world where anti-abortion advocates are honest about their endgame instead of adopting this “What? Who? Us?!” tactic that they cling to when confronted with the fact that their policies are unpopular, draconian, and soaked in misogyny.

They would be honest about the fact that they consider a fertilized egg to be a human being—the same as you and me. Frequently, anti-abortion advocates will refer to an egg that has been fertilized within the last 30 seconds as a “child” to tug on the heartstrings. Sperm meets egg? Boom! You have a child.

They would also be honest that a post-Roe “personhood” world will require balancing the constitutional rights of humans against the constitutional rights of a fertilized egg. And, according to many anti-abortion advocates, the rights of the egg will actually trump the rights of the live, breathing person.

But they know “personhood” is not a popular policy position. It is ludicrous to strip human rights from people who are born and breathing to confer rights to eggs, embryos, and blastocysts that need the body of the born and breathing pregnant person to enable their journey toward becoming people. It is cruel to deny people suffering infertility the right to use in vitro fertilization just because all the other “children” that aren’t implanted into the womb are murder victims, in their estimation.

They also know that “personhood,” at bottom, is absurd. Think about the famous trolley problem: You are operating a trolley that is barreling down Track A; there are five people on the track who are in danger of being hit. Or, you can switch to Track B, where there is only one person in danger of being hit. The question is whether you change tracks and kill the one person or let the situation play out and kill five people. “Personhood” activists would like you to believe that if a petri dish containing five fertilized eggs were lying on Track A, and a human child was strapped to Track B, that crushing the petri dish of fertilized eggs beneath the wheels of the trolley is the moral equivalent of running over a child. It’s preposterous.

And that’s why they lie. Because they know their policies are unhinged, and they don’t want you to know what they’re doing. Anti-abortion advocates want you to believe that their goals are admirable. They’re just trying to save babies and to protect women.

But they’re not—not really.

They’re trying to exert control, oftentimes through obfuscation.

Take Marjorie Dannenfelser, for example. She’s the head of the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion organization that even has its own junk science research institute, the Charlotte Lozier Institute. In May, New York magazine dubbed Dannenfelser “the woman who killed Roe.”

Earlier this month, she took aim at CNN’s Holly Thomas. Thomas’ crime?

Accurately reporting what “personhood” means for people who experience a pregnancy loss.

Dannenfelser is on record as supporting “personhood.” That’s not in dispute. But she doesn’t want people to think too hard about what that means.

Because she knows that it means every miscarriage becomes a potential crime scene.

Thomas detailed the legal morass that pregnant people may find themselves in if they are unable to prove, for example, that the miscarriage they suffered was an accident. She provided numerous examples of women who were prosecuted, convicted, and incarcerated for pregnancy losses whether or not there was any evidence that they were at fault.

Amanda Kimbrough, for example, was prosecuted under Alabama’s chemical endangerment statute; the law was intended to keep children out of meth labs. There was no evidence that meth caused her son’s death, but she was sentenced to ten years in prison anyway. The chemical endangerment statute wasn’t even meant for people like her—pregnant people who use drugs—but apparently her womb was a meth lab.

Brittney Poolaw was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to four years in prison. But again, there was no clear evidence that the use of meth caused Poolaw’s miscarriage.

Purvi Patel was sentenced to 41 years in prison after prosecutors in Indiana charged her under a feticide law that had never before been used to prosecute a person who suffered a pregnancy loss.

After Lizelle Herrera had a miscarriage, prosecutors in Starr County, Texas, indicted her for murder over what authorities described as a self-induced abortion before they decided that, whoopsie daisy, there was no Texas statute criminalizing self-inducing an abortion.

No harm done. Nothing to see here.

But Dannenfelser presumably doesn’t want you to know the names of these women. She wants to perpetuate the palpable lie that the anti-abortion movement cares about women.

“Outrageous lies intended to make America fear our own ability to pass merciful and just laws. In this article-No mention of unborn victims of violence acts’ hold women harmless clauses!!!! @CNNPolitics Seriously?” she tweeted about that CNN article earlier this month.

There’s nothing merciful or just about forcing a person to face death simply because the state claims an interest in the embryo that person is carrying.

There’s nothing merciful or just about condemning a person suffering an ectopic pregnancy to die because lawmakers think that it’s possible to reimplant an ectopic pregnancy into the womb. (It is not.)

Merciful and just does not exist in a world where lawmakers propose legislation that criminalizes abortion under penalty of death, leaving a poor woman in Texas with five kids and no resources to raise a sixth with an impossible choice.

And merciful and just means nothing in a climate where state officials deem rape and incest as “ugly language” and “a permission slip to go get an abortion.”

And “hold women harmless” means nothing to the at least 1,331 women who were arrested, detained, or otherwise deprived of physical liberty between 2006 and 2020.

“Hold women harmless” means nothing when the subjugation and incarceration of women is the natural result of the fetus-first policies Dannenfelser champions—policies that nearly half the states in this country will adopt.

Dannenfelser’s ire at CNN’s Thomas seems odd. Why would she express outrage that Thomas didn’t mention a hold harmless clause in a piece of legislation—the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which was passed in the wake of the murder of Laci Peterson and her unborn child to protect pregnant people and their wanted pregnancies—when that wasn’t the subject of the article?

What does that federal legislation have to do with the myriad cases Thomas described of state officials tossing pregnant people into jail on dubious grounds? Absolutely nothing.

But it permitted Dannenfelser to wave her “hold women harmless” flag even though it is not possible for the anti-abortion movement to reach the next brass ring—fetal “personhood”—without harming a whole lot of women, primarily women of color and poor women, along the way.