Whose personhood?

Posted on April 9, 2012


Duke Chronicle, April 9, 2012 by Joline Doedens

As a self-proclaimed theory nerd, I have spent the majority of my Duke career trying to answer what may seem like superfluous questions. What is epistemology? Phenomenology? Post-structuralism? All of these lead to the ultimate question: What is a person? Needless to say, I never anticipated that any of these questions would ever migrate from the realm of abstract theory into the political sphere. Then this election began.

Where before the election pro-choice women were only worried about Roe v. Wade getting overturned, now it seems as though Griswold v. Connecticut, which established the right of married couples to use contraception as a matter of privacy, is also threatened. It seems as though women’s bodies have moved from the seclusion of the private sphere of familial relationships and marriage into the public sphere of a political debate over women’s reproductive rights. It is no longer just a question of whether a woman has the right to terminate a pregnancy. Now a woman’s right to determine whether or not she gets pregnant is threatened. It is as though a woman’s reproductive health can no longer be considered an integral part of her personhood. In fact, in the case of recent fetal personhood amendments, something created within the woman’s body and dependent on her for several months could now be considered another person.

This is no longer just an issue of pro-life and pro-choice. Not only do we need to remember that the vast majority of women who do get an abortion do so because they believe they won’t be able to provide for the child, but we must also recognize that fetal personhood amendments affect all pregnant women. Personhood USA’s Personhood Pledge, which was signed by the Republican candidates (except Mitt Romney, who said later in an interview that he absolutely agreed with the measures), promises to “pursue an amendment to the Constitution that would protect the full inalienable ‘personhood’ rights of zygotes by extending the protections of the 14th Amendment to fetuses from the moment of conception and by outlawing any medical technology or practices that inhibit implantation of a fertilized egg.” That means, as Catharine MacKinnon feared, that “the fetus could be given the right to the use of the pregnant woman’s body from conception to birth.” Where does this leave the woman? It seems as though she is stripped of her personhood for nine months, and reduced to a mere incubator for a possible future president, senator, doctor, scientist, mediocre student, criminal, murderer or regular old middle-class citizen. Her life could even be threatened by a difficult pregnancy, and the fetus would have the upper hand.

Look at the case of Angela Carter, a 27-year-old lung cancer patient who was 25 weeks pregnant. Together with her family and her doctor, she had decided to stay alive as long as possible, but the hospital called an emergency meeting and held that the fetal rights outweighed Angela’s rights to life, and ordered an emergency C-section. Neither Angela nor her baby survived.

Look also at the case of Laura Pemberton, a Florida resident and mother of seven children. When she was pregnant with her fourth child, she didn’t want to have another C-section, so she decided to stay home to have her baby. While she was in active labor, the state attorney and the county sheriff came to her house, arrested her and took her to the hospital, where she was forced to have a C-section. When she argued that her right to bodily integrity had been violated, the court told her that the fetus’s rights outweighed her own. Not only did she go on to have three more children naturally, but she also became a pro-choice supporter. Before the incident, she had been staunchly opposed to the legalization of abortion.

Finally, look at the case of a woman in Utah, who was arrested on murder charges after the birth of her twins, one of whom was stillborn. Apparently, since she had refused a C-section several weeks earlier, she was culpable for the fetus’s death. Once again, the fetus had more rights than the mother.

This is not to say that everyone should suddenly become pro-choice. I just think the question of women’s reproductive health needs to be reframed. Rather than a moral issue or an issue of privacy, abortion rights and fetal rights need to take into account a woman’s personhood. Of course, this doesn’t take away the question of when a fetus becomes a person, but I think it is important to remember that the woman is already established in society. She has a life, she has relationships—she is already a senator, a bank teller, a teacher, a scientist, a criminal, a thief, a doctor or a regular old middle-class citizen. Of course, it would be ideal if both the future life of the fetus and the current life of the mother could be preserved, but that should be left up to the woman, and possibly her family. If we maintain the traditional configuration of the family, she is the one who will be tasked with molding the fetus into a person with relationships and a place in society.

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