Not a Joke: Personhood for Women

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Commentary Human Rights

Not a Joke: Personhood for Women

Soraya Chemaly

What are you, as a woman, or as a man related to one, willing to trade when you vote for a presidential candidate who signed the Personhood Pledge or a legislator who supports anti-choice "personhood"-based bills?

Melissa McEwan started a Personhood for Women petition suggesting that “a person identifying as a woman and/or having a uterus shall retain all of the full, basic, and fundamental rights of a US citizen as guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence” and urging Senators Patty Murray, Al Franken and Kristin Gillibrand to consider proposing this as an amendment in Congress. It’s not a joke. As far as I can tell, it’s an anti-“personhood for zygotes” (fertilized eggs) petition and important since we are apparently, as a country, electing people who are willing to endanger women’s equality, liberty and fundamental rights.

What are you, as a woman, or as a man related to one, willing to trade when you vote for a presidential candidate who signed the Personhood Pledge or a legislator who supports anti-choice “personhood”-based bills? Are you really going to vote to trade rights for talking points? 

Of the Republican presidential candidates, only Mitt Romney hasn’t yet signed the Personhood Pledge, for which he’s been castigated by the anti-choice movement. Presidential candidates, and those that support personhood, are pledging to do the following:

  1. Give the government the right to seize a woman’s body to protect a fetus
  2. Empower hospitals and doctors, with government support, to force a woman to bear a child and/or have a cesarean against her will
  3. Criminalize abortion (including all circumstances: rape, incest, life-threatening pregnancy, severe fetal deformity)
  4. Criminalize stillbirths in certain situations (who decides which?)
Examples of these state powers are sadly already available.  Case in point: Bei Bei Shuai,  a pregnant woman living in Indiana became so depressed that she attempted suicide. Friends managed to save her, and although Ms. Shuai did everything she could, including undergoing cesarean surgery, her newborn died shortly after birth. She was arrested and charged with murder after her fetus died. She is in currently in prison.  A Free Bei Bei petition was recently launched on  If you want to learn more  about the punishment of pregnant women visit National Advocates for Pregnant Women. But, you might want to take an anti-depressant before you do.
In addition, personhood legislation bans most forms of birth control, including pills and IUDs, and in vitro fertilization. Yes, many of these bills outlaw birth control and shut down fertility clinics.

Personhood USA, the center of the movement, believes that a fertilized egg, from the moment of conception, is a fully human person with an inalienable right to life and that its rights and the state’s interest in protecting those rights trump a woman’s. Personhood is how we’re dismantling equality by eroding women’s reproductive rights, passing rape sonogram legislation, taxing rape victims who seek abortions, and criminalizing basic health care. And although personhood bills are being defeated just their very introduction makes anything short of their passage seem like some kind of “gift” that women should be grateful for as opposed to the absurd assault on rights that they represent.

Roe is gone. The chaos is just beginning.

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By signing the pledge these candidates have promised, should they be elected president, to pursue an amendment to the Constitution that would protect the full inalienable “personhood” rights of zygotes from the moment of conception. The candidates are not alone in their support for Personhood for fertilized eggs.  Personhood USA, which is organized, passionate, divinely mandated and literally on a “mission” is gaining momentum every day as evidenced by the 135 plus bills being pursued this year alone in state legislatures across he country.  And, although specific personhood bills are being defeated, related legislation is not and their very introduction makes anything short of their passage seem like some kind of “gift” that women should be grateful for as opposed to the absurd assault on rights that they represent. 

Every time a legislative body champions this cause this is what it is committing women to. I will not, here, discuss the impact on doctors (who may refuse to treat women with ectopic pregnancies for fear of criminal prosecution, for example) or – god forbid – the scientific denialism of people pretending to be doctors in state legislatures and potentially the White House.

What does this look like? Take five minutes to consider:

A woman, like Laura Pemberton was, can be arrested for refusing a life-threatening Caesarian. Yes, a hospital can waive your right to life, in violation of your or your family’s instructions, to save your fetus. Yes, like Melissa Rowland, you can be charged with murder if you have a still-born birth. Yes, your 11-year old daughter, if raped and pregnant as a result, would be forced to carry the pregnancy to term or face criminal charges. And, yes, you can be taken from your home and imprisoned in a hospital to give birth there by a method you do not chose.  The Georgia State Legislature just passed a bill in the House, after a debate involving a conversation about “cows” and “hogs” whose net effect, taken in tandem with other restrictions, will be that some women will end up carry dying fetuses because doctors, facing criminal prosecution, will be unable to perform abortions.  I hope this is worth lower taxes for Clear Channel communications.

Is “personhood” personal enough to be political for you yet? What do these people need to do for this to become a priority? Even socially conservative women must be able to see where this is heading. If not, then at the very least they have to admit to their race and class privileges because primarily wealthy, primarily white women will always be able to find a way to secure a quiet abortion and get basic health care.

The only way to stop this is to vote. I hope, for those men and women considering voting for one of these men, that they understand what exactly what they are trading away on all of our behalves if they ignore this movement. Here’s a handy chart for prioritizing what to trade for women’s rights and human dignity. I was going to spend some time making this chart brighter, flow-charty, colorful and less simple and out-dated looking, but these ideas are simple and a sad rehashing of out-dated debates that have no place in a today’s world.


The rights on the left side of this chart – they have implications for the economy, for government spending, for immigration policy, for taxation, for…everything. But, since this is a “womens’ issue” we’ll just ignore all of those implications, marginalize them, scoff at “single-issue” voters and whiney feminist willfully ignore that there is NOTHING serious and important that isn’t a women’s issue.

I did not add basic health care as a right on this chart because we don’t consider it a human right in this country (never has If Men Had Periods been truer). But, make no mistake, basic health care unrelated to sexual health, for people that are female, is being negotiated away and eliminated entirely as I type. Rick Perry, the Republican Governor of Texas and the Republican Legislature, chose this week to forgo $35 million in federal money to finance women’s health programs because they oppose a woman’s right to chose to have an abortion. As a result, millions of women are losing access to health care clinics, doctors, tests, preventative medicine and more. I love it when people say women like me are single-issue voters when the reality is social conservative politicians are single-issue legislators: the only way to sacrifice women’s overall health care needs and enact physically invasive, punitive medically unnecessary procedures is if you are singularly obsessed with controlling one-dimension of women’s lives: their sexuality. When all you value a woman for is access to and use of her reproductive organs then you end up with the situation we’re in now.

This is how Personhood Movement puts it in it’s deceptively oh-so-benign but none-the-less-dangerous, ethereal, new-agey-music infused video: “Personhood is the new civil rights movement of the 21st century…”these are the times that test men’s souls.” 

Yes, that is CORRECT. These are the times that test men’s souls and strip women of their hard-fought for and fragile rights and dignity. Maybe anyone concerned with the inalienable rights of other people should start with the ones that already exist.

The Personhood movement would have you believe this is a simple matter of stopping bad people from selfishly killing defenseless “children.” But, of course, it’s not. It’s a very complex bio-ethical and legal issue, regarding definitions of “human,” “person,” “nature,” “rights,” “child,” “moral,” “ethical” and more. It includes, god forbid, science. If you care to take the time, it is comprehensively covered in this report by the Coalition for a Secular Government, which even deeply religious people who understand the value of our political system, can embrace. 

These presidential candidates promised to sign away women’s fundamental rights when they signed that pledge and conservative, religiously motivated state legislators are doing the same. Three core Republican beliefs are that:

  • Our country was founded on the fundamental principle that individuals have rights and freedoms
  • Government intervention into the lives of private citizens should be limited
  • Traditional values and freedoms of the American Republic should be reaffirmed

By signing this pledge and by introducing these bills, conservatives, especially Republican who overwhelmingly support Personhood legislation, are either betraying these beliefs in individual rights as the most basic principle of justice in a society or demonstrating that they don’t believe women are included in the definition of full citizens with full rights and privileges. It’s not a matter of rejecting these core beliefs, it’s a matter of rejecting the idea that women – who are not just wombs with legs – are equal under the law as full citizens with rights.

And yes, I added fetal extraction to the chart since I NEVER want my daughters to ask me how I sat still and didn’t take the Personhood movement seriously. 

Personhood adherents, obsessive in their pursuit of a narrowly and perversely applied morality would have no problems positioning forced fetal extraction as entirely within the realm of acceptable practices given what they are suggesting now.  The rational extension of the precedents set by Personhood bills and other related legislation, like rape sonogram laws, mean that states could easily require my daughters and yours to have their fetuses extracted for any number of reasons. Who decides how you gestate and which environment is “best” for a zygote? Or which scenario, since we’re so fascinated with insurance and religious freedom, which aren’t about women’s issues at all, which is more economical and moral? Your gamete-partner? Your legislator? Your employer? Your insurance company? Your doctor? Your judge? Your doofy, aw-shucks, sweater-vested pro-life Senator or ex-Mormon bishop who may yet sign a Personhood Pledge?

Anyone but you. I know – I’m exaggerating because I’m one of those feminist people. All this hand-wringing and clinging to my rights over my own body and human dignity.

Ensuring that women’s rights and dignity are recognized, respected and preserved does not force anyone to use birth control, have an abortion, undergo a dangerous cesarean, use in vitro technology, go to jail if they miscarry or deny the fundamental humanity of another person. Taking away those rights however, does. That’s what supporters of “personhood” for zygotes commit all of us if we don’t take them seriously.  That’s why the Personhood for Women petition isn’t a joke.  

Our country is not a theocracy (although here’s a test): it is free. Nothing threatens to turn it into one so much as the Personhood movements anti-life, anti-choice, anti-equality very open intent to inform the distribution of rights according to explicitly stated religious beliefs and enlisting our political representatives to be their foot soldiers. Reproductive freedom is a fundamental right.