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Friday, January 10, 2014

The legal march to personhood (and de-personhood)

by digby

I got some blowback from anti-abortion types for this piece I wrote about the Munoz case in Texas and,  in particular, using the term "birthing vessels" which was seen as a provocative and radical term that was contributing to our lack of civility. (I know, this from people who routinely display gory pictures of dismembered body parts in public ...)

Anyway, the story is what it is and I stand by my harshly satirical take on the issue.  But if you want to read a more comprehensive look at this phenomenon, this one by Ilyse Hoague is excellent.  I'll just highlight this small piece:

I'm reminded of the case of Bei Bei Shuai, who faces prosecution in Indiana for feticide after she attempted suicide in 2011 when she was pregnant. She survived the attempt, but her fetus died in the process. So the state has chosen to criminalize her pregnancy, declaring her a murderer for attempting to take her own life. Or Alicia Beltran, a pregnant Wisconsin woman who disclosed to her doctor that she had previously been addicted to pills. Although she proudly stated that she had been clean for a year, and confirmed it with a subsequent urine test, her doctor insisted that she go on anti-addiction medication. When she refused, she was arrested and taken to court, where she did not have a lawyer. However, one was appointed to represent her fetus.
Individually, the cases of Shuai, Beltran, and Munoz are troubling. Together, they add up to a clear picture of how many politicians think it's not only acceptable, but preferable, for women to lose rights once they become pregnant. And increasingly, state laws reflect that outdated paradigm.

That's my emphasis. Keep in mind that the laws were never so designed before. It may have been true that women did not have the same rights as men. But this new approach is making them have fewer rights than a fetus that cannot survive outside the woman herself. That is just bizarre. And this movement is growing.

Lynn Paltrow at National Advocates for Pregnant Women has been tracking these laws for years and advocating for women to be full citizens in the eyes of the law. In 2010, she wrote a piece for The Huffington Post exposing the move towards "personhood" as part of this sinister agenda. She points out that recognizing the humanity of others has never before come at a cost to an entire class of people. When women were recognized as equal citizens under the constitution, this did not come at a cost to men. She states that "efforts to legally disconnect fetuses and to grant them entirely independent constitutional status would not merely add a new group to the constitutional population: it would effectively denaturalize pregnant women, removing from them their status as constitutional persons."

And you can easily see that at some point these laws would logically have to apply to women who might be pregnant as well --- all women of childbearing age. After all, women engage in all kinds of behavior that might endanger a fetus and they don't always know if they are pregnant. I suppose we could come up with a daily mandatory government test to ensure that a woman isn't impregnated but that dystopian solution will hardly be necessary. What's more likely is that this grows into cultural acceptance backed up by "examples" like the one's listed above in which the government steps in to enforce the social norm. In this formulation, a women's primary value is her childbearing potential. After all, her body could be, might be, the "home" of another person who must be protected from her by the state.

It's hard to imagine that anything like this could happen. But a few years ago I would have thought it absurd that anyone would keep a woman's body alive against her own and her family's wishes to serve as an incubator. I certainly wouldn't have thought there could be specific laws governing such bizarre, science fiction worthy scenarios on the books. I wouldn't have thought that the state would represent the interests of a fetus against the woman outside of whose body it cannot survive, either, or that any woman could be charged with child murder for trying to take her own life. In other words, I would never have believed that the state would define women as a class as the enemies of fetuses, enemies who must be controlled lest they do something to harm them. But it has. And it seems to me that once you have codified a concept so unnatural and so grotesque, you really can't be sure where it will lead.

Update: BTW, it turns out that women very rarely choose not to have an abortion once they see an ultrasound. Apparently, they already knew they were pregnant and what that meant before they made the decision to have an abortion.  Imagine that.

But then the people who instituted these ridiculous laws probably knew that too.  The idea is to punish these women and make them feel guilty. Ultrasounds don't seem to be getting the job done. What's next? Tasers?