HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas

Introducing Personhood

Behold the person! Previously known as a one-celled zygote. nnOn the Orwellian turf of language, the pro-lifers from the start won the battle: they never got saddled as “anti-abortion” or “forced-natalism.” Instead, “pro-life” obliquely paints opponents as “pro-death” – truly a death knell for a grassroots movement. Yet while “pro-choice” sounds better than “pro-abortion” (which also doesn’t make for a resoundingly popular grassroots movement, since even many people ardently “pro-choice” consider abortion a sad ending), it still sounds like a reality television show.

Now we have a new linguistic twist: “personhood.” This twist may well reverse decades of women’s rights – an Orwellian nightmare.

The notion that the zygote, or the embryo that results after a two-week period before implantation into the uterine wall (a distinction that philosophers hesitate to make, but that our lawmakers make unhesitatingly) is a person, entitled to Constitutional protection, has long hovered at the fringe in arguments over abortion. At what point do we protect the biological reality of a fetus? States, even decidedly pro-life states, fearful not just of treading in this philosophical minefield, but fearful of the consequences, have rejected “personhood” amendments.

The fringe is now mainstream.

Enter this ascendant band of conservatives. Georgia Congressman Tom Price, slated to head the Department of Health and Human Services, twice introduced bills in Congress to upgrade the fertilized egg to person. His co-sponsor was Vice President Mike Pence, acting as Congressman from Indiana. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has weighed in (2009, 2011, 2013).

States are cautiously getting on the “personhood” bandwagon. In a variation, several states have introduced “fetal tax credit” legislation, giving expectant mothers a tax break. And 38 states have “fetal homicide” laws, holding a person who murders a fetus (while murdering the mother) responsible.

This zeal to protect zygotes lends itself to grim satire. See “Personhood Cops” video, shot by Lady Justice. (

But the possibility is real; the consequences, dire. That protection would outlaw all abortions, including those for rape, incest, as well as fetal anomalies that the newborn cannot survive. In fact, the “personhood” activists reject the claim that an abortion might be necessary to save the life of a mother. To quote the “personhood” website (, “Medical experts in maternal healthcare testified before the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in March 2013 that direct abortion is not necessary to save the life of the mother in any circumstance.”

As for fetal anomalies that would make life difficult for a child, the personhood-activists offer no income supports for those parents – indeed, in this conservative Valhalla those parents may lose their health insurance.

More dire news: contraception, at least the most effective ones like IUDs and hormonal patches, would be out. So, probably, would the “morning after” pills women often take after rape.

“Assisted reproduction” too would fall by the wayside, since all the fetuses created from in vitro fertilization are not routinely saved.

Not surprisingly, a rift has surfaced in the “pro-life” movement. The “personhood” activists deride the “pro-lifers’” incremental approach to curbing abortions: the regulations vis a vis ultrasounds, waiting periods, presence of a heartbeat, parental notification, “conscience” exclusions for pharmacists. The “personhood” bloc wants the whole shebang: no abortions ever, no contraception ever.

Sadly, the ascendant conservatives in power may do just that.

A favorite children’s book focuses on a befuddled pigeon, eager to drive a bus: Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus (by Mo Willems). The pint-sized readers recognize the dangers; they yell “No.” As conservative legislators rewrite health regulations, we too should yell “No.”

Joan Retsinas is a sociologist who writes about health care in Providence, R.I. Email

From The Progressive Populist, February 15, 2017

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