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Bioethics Forum Essay

Have a Miscarriage and Go to Jail? Potential Consequences of Personhood Amendments

When she was 18, Carmen Guadalupe Vasquez Aldana was sentenced to 30 years in jail. Her crime was delivering a stillborn baby. She was suspected of having had an abortion. While her  sentence was overturned on January 21,  her original conviction of homicide was the result of Article 1 of El Salvador’s constitution: “El Salvador . . . recognizes as a human person every human being since the moment of conception.”

Many in America would no doubt welcome a similar change to our laws and even our constitution. For the past several election years, there have been attempts by pro-life advocates in several states to pass personhood amendments, granting a legal right to life to human embryos and fetuses. Personhood USA, the main group spearheading these efforts, describes its goal as follows: “The intrinsic humanity of unborn children, by definition, makes them persons, and should, therefore, guarantee their protection under the law . . . if the Court considers the humanity of the preborn child, it could end this age-based discrimination and restore the legal protections of personhood to the preborn.”

So far, these attempts have been unsuccessful; even traditionally “deep red” states like North Dakota have rejected these initiatives. However, it is likely that we will see repeated attempts to pass such amendments.

Typically, pro-life advocates who support personhood amendments do so only with an opposition to abortion in mind. Such a view is dangerously myopic. As I argued in my article, “Beyond Abortion: The Implications of Human Life Amendments” in the Journal of Social Philosophy, granting legal status to human embryos and fetuses has significant and worrisome consequences outside the abortion issue. It would mean that embryos and fetuses would be entitled to thesametreatment that our society would give any other person. It opens the door to cases like Aldana’s happening here.

Some pro-life advocates have dismissed this concern as unrealistic fear-mongering. For example, defenders of Mississippi’s Personhood Amendment, which was defeated, wrote: “[the amendment] will NOT cause women with miscarriages to be prosecuted. This rumor is both silly and cruel and is simply fear-mongering. Women were not prosecuted for any miscarriages before Roe vs. Wade, and Personhood does not make having a miscarriage a crime.”

We don’t have to go to El Salvador to find more cases where a woman’s welfare and rights are ignored in favor of fetal rights. In America women have been forced into having caesarian sections in the alleged interest of preserving fetal welfare. Women have also been denied jobs under the guise of protecting fetuses from harmful chemical exposure (for example in the 1980s Johnson and Johnson barred any fertile woman, regardless of whether they were actually pregnant, from their productions jobs, given the potential to lead exposure).

I am pro-choice and I have a deep respect for the value of all human life – even those in a nascent state. I do not think it is necessary to dehumanize a fetus as a mere “clump of cells” in order to argue in favor of abortion rights. This is one way the personhood amendments gravely fail; even if fetuses were accorded the full rights of persons, this would do little to challenge the right to an abortion. No person has the right to force another human being to use her body to benefit others (we can’t, for example, compel blood or bone marrow donations even to save lives).

Moreover, the evidence suggests that banning abortions does little to curb their occurrence – the abortion rate is not lower in countries with restrictive abortion laws than in those with more liberal ones. What has proven effective is wide access to effective contraception, education on how to properly use it, and social welfare programs designed to benefit parents, especially single mothers, and the children those fetuses grow up to become.

My hope is that those who support personhood amendments familiarize themselves with  Aldana’s case, and with the many other cases where a woman’s rights were grossly violated in the alleged interest of protecting fetal welfare, and that this, at least, gives them pause. I firmly believe that both pro-choice and pro-life advocates can find common ground by helping to alleviate the social circumstances that cause so many women to seek abortions. And we can achieve this without passing legislation that does nothing to save fetuses and that, instead, serves no other function than putting women’s bodies, health, and rights at risk.

Bertha Alvarez Manninen is an associate professor of philosophy at Arizona State University West Campus.

Posted by Laura Haupt at 01/27/2015 03:18:08 PM |

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