A common message from anti-abortion activists is that “women deserve better than abortion.” Today, however, one branch of that movement is taking women down a notch with a new strategy that could prioritize the rights of fertilized eggs over the rights of the women carrying them.
A question on the ballot in Mississippi next month will ask voters to decide: “Should the term ‘person’ be defined to include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the equivalent thereof?” This issue is before voters thanks to the “personhood” movement, which says that conception is the moment that a person, and a person’s legal rights, begin to exist.
Personhood ballot measures were defeated by wide margins in 2008 and 2010 in Colorado. But observers say Mississippi’s measure is likely to pass; personhood efforts are also underway this year in Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida and other states. On paper these measures would grant a zygote the same rights as the woman who carries it; in practice, however, they could mean that the zygote’s rights come first.
Many of the abortion-rights advocates battling these efforts point out that personhood laws would not only make abortion illegal, they could also ban IUDs, emergency contraception and other hormonal forms of birth control.
Focusing on abortion and birth control is a worthy strategy; it’s also an incomplete one. To paint a full picture of what “personhood” would mean for women, the pro-choice movement must discuss the one group of people who would be intimately affected by these laws but who are often ignored: pregnant women who don’t want abortions.
The world that personhood proponents envision is one not only where abortion is illegal and birth control nearly impossible to obtain, but where pregnant women could be denied their legal rights. Because “fetal protection” and “feticide” laws, which are on the books in 37 states, seek to give fetuses protections — as if a zygote or a fertilized egg were completely separate from the person who carries it — some mothers have already been criminalized and had their lives endangered. These stories have mostly been terrifying exceptions to the norm, examples of legislation coinciding with worst-case medical scenarios. But the more a fetus’s rights — or even the rights of a fertilized egg — are seen to exist in tandem with the legal rights of a woman, the more frequent they could become.
In 1987 in Washington, 27-year-old Angela Carder was 26 weeks’ pregnant and gravely ill with cancer. It wasn’t clear that Carder, who was sedated, wanted to deliver via a Cesarean section, which her doctors said was too risky. The hospital obtained a court order, however, saying that she was to have the surgery to save the life of her fetus. Her daughter survived two hours, and Carder died two days later, with the C-section listed as a contributing factor. Carder’s family appealed the decision, and the District’s highest court ultimately ruled that a pregnant woman has the right to make medical decisions for herself and for her fetus. Beyond Washington, however, that right is unevenly protected.