What does personhood for fertilized eggs look like in practice?

What Women Really Think
Oct. 28 2011 2:26 PM

Personhood Laws in Mexico Preview Mississippi's Future

Sperm penetrating egg.
Are personhood laws a slippery slope toward persecuting pregnant women?

Sebastian Kaulitzki/Thinkstock

Earlier this week, Slate's David Plotz published a "what if" article exploring the legal ramifications if Mississippi actually votes for a constitutional amendment declaring fertilized eggs legal persons. Some of the possibilites are a little silly, like moving people's birthdays to conception days, but some of the concerns are very serious. The amendment could threaten the legality of IVF, put women who miscarry into police custody, and make it illegal for hospitals to save women's health or lives who are suffering from incomplete miscarriages or ectopic pregnancies. There's even a concern that anti-choicers will use blatantly unscientific claims that the pill works by killing fertilized eggs (it works by preventing ovulation) to get the birth control pill banned. The possible uses of this law by misogynists in legislation and law enforcement are endless.

We do have an example of what to expect should this pass, however. While the concept of legal personhood for fertilized eggs appears to have originated with the Christian right in the United States, it was imported to Mexico, where some states passed a rash of laws giving fertilized eggs personhood in response to the liberalization of abortion laws in Mexico City. The main result has been a doubling down in the criminalization of women who have abortions, or even miscarriages. After all, there's not a bright white line between the two, especially when you're looking only at the biological evidence. As Angela Castellanos at RH Reality Check detailed, the penalties for a woman who has an abortion range from six months to four years.

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But that number underplays the damage that these laws have done. According to activists in Baja California, a woman received a 23 year sentence for what may not have even been an abortion. The accused is claiming that it was just a miscarriage. Lest you think this sort of thing can't happen in the United States, know that women are being prosecuted frequently in the United States for stillbirths, even if prosecutors have no direct evidence linking the woman's bad health choices with the stillbirth. It's easy to see how zealous law enforcement could start opening investigations on miscarriages if personhood laws are passed, especially in cases where women miscarrying are poor, young, or otherwise viewed with suspicion by law enforcement. Anti-choicers often demur on the subject of whether or not they want jail time for the one in three women who will have abortions in their lifetimes, but the logic of personhood laws makes that possibility hard to avoid. Consider that at least one in five pregnancies ends naturally in a miscarriage, and you can see how personhood laws can quickly turn women of reproductive age into a criminal class. 

Amanda Marcotte is a Brooklyn-based writer and DoubleX contributor. She also writes regularly for the Daily Beast, AlterNet, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter.

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