Personhood For Women: Is this Personal Enough? – The Feminist Wire

Personhood For Women: Is this Personal Enough?

By Soraya Chemaly

Melissa McEwan recently 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.

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 legislationtaxing rape victims seeking 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.

What are you, as a woman or a man related to one, willing to trade when you vote for a presidential candidate who signed the Personhood Pledge or supports  personhood-based legislation? Are you really going to vote to trade womens’ fundamental rights for what often comes down to campaign 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.  By signing the Personhood Pledge Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul have promised, should they be elected president, to

“support a human life amendment to the Constitution, and endorse legislation to make clear that the 14th Amendment protections apply to unborn children.”

What happens when fertilized eggs have equal rights with women in whose bodies they must gestate to be born?

Is “personhood” personal enough to be political for you yet? 

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 or support it and don’t pause to consider its deeply corrosive and damaging impact on society.   Setting aside issues of who pays for whose contraception (which, by the way, also means who pays for whose smoking habits, eating habits, driving incompetence etc.) or religious freedom (what about polygamy or the use of hallucinogens for religious ceremonies) there are several fundamental rights that we seemingly are willing to give up.

Since that is the case, here’s a handy chart for prioritizing what to trade for women’s rights and human dignity:
The items on the right are clearly vital issues. But, they are informed entirely by the rights on the left side of this chart.  A woman’s ability to make choices about how and when to have a family has implications for the economy, for government spending, for immigration policy, for taxation, for…everything. But, since reproductive rights is a “womens’ issue” we’ll just ignore all of those implications or marginalize them by willfully forgetting that there is NOTHING that isn’t a women’s issue.
The candidates who signed this pledge are not alone in their support for Personhood for fertilized eggs. Currently more than two dozen states are entertaining Personhood or personhood-based bills. Personhood USA, which is organized, passionate, divinely mandated and literally on a “mission” is gaining momentum every day.
What these candidates and others that support personhood are pledging to do is make the following possible:
  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 lie to a woman, force a woman to bear a child and/or have a caesarian or other medical procedures against her will
  3. Criminalize abortion (including in the end result,  all circumstances: rape, incest, life-threatening pregnancy, severe fetal deformity)
  4. Criminalize stillbirths and miscarriages in certain situations (who decides which?)
Examples of these state powers are sadly already available.  Case in point: Bei Bei Shuai, has been arrested in Indiana and charged with murder.  She, a pregnant woman, became 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.  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 also means that ectopic pregnancies become a matter of life or death for women whose  doctors may refuse to treat women with ectopic pregnancies for fear of criminal prosecution, for example. This isn’t exaggeration or some fictional dystopia we’re talking about.  It’s happening all over the country and every time a legislative body champions this cause this is what it is committing women to.
What does this look like? Take five minutes to consider this video.

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 have to 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.


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 – 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 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 bioethical and legal issue, regarding definitions of “human,” “person,” “nature,” “rights,” “child,” “moral,” “ethical” and more. Including, god forbid, science. If you care to take the time, it is comprehensively covered in this report by the Coalition for a Secular Government. They’re interested in preserving some apparently RADICAL ideas about freedom and equality.
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 Republicans 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 why I didn’t take the Personhood movement seriously. Scientists predict it will be possible to artificially fully gestate a human embryo within 10-20 years.  Even if this is not a practical reality, all we need is a principle reality on which the precedents being established now can be based.
Personhood people would have no problems positioning forced fetal extraction as entirely within the realm of acceptable practices given what they are suggesting now. The logical 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 by force 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 Mormon bishop who may yet sign a Personhood Pledge?
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 Caesarian, 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.
Our country is not a theocracy (although here’s an interesting 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 their explicitly stated religious beliefs and enlisting our political representatives to be their foot soldiers. Reproductive freedom is a fundamental human right.
Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism and culture for The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, The Good Men Project and Alternet.  Her work focuses on pushing academic feminism into mainstream critiques of popular culture, through satirical humour and news analysis.  She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded that schools first feminist undergraduate journal,  and studied post-grad at Radcliffe College.