The unintended consequences of personhood
By Abe Sauer
The opinions expressed are his own.
The morning after Mississippi voters rejected a constitutional amendment to define a fertilized human egg as a person, Personhood USA was far from conceding defeat. Instead, after its second such defeat in as many years, the personhood movement was learning from its mistakes and planning a next attempt, which may come as early as 2012, and maybe in your state.
The amendment—which was heavily favored until it was not—would have made abortion, already roadblocked by process requirements and done by only one provider in the state, illegal. That was an intended consequence most Mississippians were behind. It was the amendment’s unknowns that scared off those who were unsure they were ready to go to Walgreens for “Personhood Tests.”
The measure collapsed because three constituencies got nervous: the medical community, Christians who had used in vitro fertilization (which may have been made illegal under the amendment), and, surprisingly, traditional allies of the anti-abortion movement, such as the Catholic Church, who were uncomfortable with the amendment’s vague language. Late polling found a 20-point drop in support from just a few weeks earlier.
But the anti-abortion organization vows it will turn to other states with its anchor baby-amendment.
Personhood’s USA’s cri de coeur is pulled from a comment made by Justice Harry Blackmun during Roe v. Wade. “If this suggestion of personhood is established, the appellant’s case, of course, collapses, for the fetus’ right to life would then be guaranteed.” Of that decision, Personhood USA argues, “In 1973, the science of fetology was not able to prove, as it can now, that a living, fully human, and unique individual exists at the moment of fertilization…” This new science, Personhood USA insists, “could end this age-based discrimination.” Fans of dystopian sci-fi will certainly appreciate that the personhood movement is relying on scientific discoveries about fertilization to frame its anti-science legislation.
But in order for Personhood USA to succeed in other states, it will have to settle the questions raised in Mississippi. And all of them are nuanced. At what stage of the fertilization process does “personhood” occur? Will birth control methods like IUDs be illegal? Can pregnant women use the carpool lane?
Moreover, could, say, obese women be charged with child endangerment under a personhood amendment? The health risks are real. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists states, “Obese women should be informed of the risks associated with maternal obesity, be screened for gestational diabetes, and be assessed for the need for supplements of vitamins and minerals, including folate..” A recent CMACE/RCOG guidelines paper began, “Maternal obesity has become one of the most commonly occurring risk factors in obstetric practice.”
According to the Journal of the American Medical Association: “…the risk of spina bifida was more than twice as high for obese mothers-to-be, and the overall risk of neural tube defects was 87 percent higher for obese mothers compared with women with normal weight.” Obstetricians I spoke with said they are seeing an increasing number of very obese pregnancies causing increasingly severe outcomes. One obstetrician decried some harrowing c-sections and told me severe obesity can be as dangerous to a fetus as alcohol consumption. “And it’s certainly more dangerous than sushi,” she added.
Could pregnant women who are or become too obese during pregnancy be charged with endangerment of the person they are carrying? When he was prepping the (doomed) 2010 Colorado personhood amendment, I asked Personhood USA co-founder Keith Mason.
“I can’t answer that because it’s a hypothetical,” he said. But Mason had no problem entertaining hypotheticals about how, under a personhood amendment, pregnant women found to be consuming drugs and alcohol might be liable for criminal charges for abuse. But when I turned the question to obesity, Mason said, “It’s like asking what would happen if a Martian came down and impregnated a woman on earth.” I did not burden him with a follow-up hypothetical about the upcoming Twilight: Breaking Dawn premise.
Mason concluded the obesity hypothetical by telling me that the movement aims to get the job done and then “worry about the details later.” (Coincidentally, that was my approach to making two little persons of my own.)
Of course, it was the details that led to the amendment’s failure in Mississippi. If Personhood USA wants to succeed in other states like Montana, Florida, Ohio, Nevada, Oregon, and California. it will need to better define its terms. The personhood movement claims it is becoming more savvy about its approach. But unless it addresses unintended consequences like the potential criminalization of obese pregnant women, the movement seems doomed to be rejected by the citizen body.