Gender

Woman Arrested for Thinking About Abortion? How Insane 'Personhood' Laws Are a Direct Assault on Pregnant Women

Women are being assaulted by attempts to establish fetal rights.

Last month, legislators in South Dakota introduced a bill that was worded in such a way that it could allow for the legalized murder of abortion providers. Under a firestorm of controversy, the bill was withdrawn, but similar bills have also been introduced in Nebraska and Iowa.

Legislators who introduce these bills invariably claim they aren’t encouraging terrorism or trying to infringe on the right to abortion, which is protected by the Supreme Court under Roe v. Wade. In fact, the argument for these kinds of laws is that they're about protecting pregnant women from violent assault. The sponsor of the South Dakota bill, Phil Jensen, laughably announced that his bill was about giving pregnant women the right to fend off attackers, even though pregnant women--like all citizens of South Dakota--already enjoy a broad right to self-defense in that state. More likely, this proposed bill, along with a broader one in Nebraska and Iowa, would work both to subtly encourage terrorism and establish a potential defense for those who kill abortion doctors.   

Even short of that, laws like these are about establishing the notion that a fetus, or even a fertilized egg, is a separate person from the woman in which it resides, and therefore has rights equal to, or in most cases, greater than her rights. This would seem most obviously an attack on women’s health, freedom and safety, but supporters always strike a pose of protection for pregnant women, claiming to have their interests at heart. But the real-world results of these laws demonstrate that, just as pro-choice activists claim, women--especially pregnant women--are being assaulted rather than protected by attempts to establish fetal rights.   

Take the more direct “personhood” bills, which define fertilized eggs as “persons” under the law. One such law is winding its way through North Dakota's legislature. Proponents of these laws admit they are laying groundwork for abortion bans, but still promote the laws as somehow being pro-woman, with Rep. Dan Ruby claiming that “women and children” will be protected by this law. Planned Parenthood disagrees, arguing that women who miscarry or suffer pregnancy complications will find themselves turned over to the police for criminal misconduct. Not very protective of pregnant women! At least four other states, including Florida, are looking at similar laws.  

If you find yourself wanting to dismiss the possibility that these laws will be used to jail women who miscarry or suffer pregnancy complications, consider a recent event in Iowa where a pregnant woman was arrested for falling down a flight of stairs. You read that correctly. Christine Taylor fell down a flight of stairs after having a fight with her husband on the phone. When she went to the hospital--to makes sure the fetus was okay--she was arrested under one of the many state laws that grant fetuses rights separate from the mother. In this case, Iowa has a “feticide” law that pertains to the second trimester and beyond, and since Taylor confessed that she had contemplated abortion but had chosen to have the baby, the nurse and doctor at the hospital decided to phone the police and accuse her of trying to terminate her pregnancy illegally. She was eventually not charged, but in light of these events, any notion that a law such as this will be used for any other purpose but to harass and punish women should be disregarded. 

Iowa is far from the only state where even pregnant women who want their babies are being punished and controlled with laws that establish a separate personhood and rights for a fetus. Nebraska banned abortions after 20 weeks on the unscientific grounds that fetuses feel pain at that gestational age. Shortly thereafter, Danielle Deaver discovered at 22 weeks she had a pregnancy that could not result in a living baby. Banned from having an abortion, she was forced to give birth to a baby that lived for 15 terrible minutes before dying. The notion that either mother or child is well served by this law should be dashed, and the brutal sadism of such laws immediately apparent.   

If a woman in Iowa can be arrested for accidentally putting a wanted fetus in danger in the second trimester, and a woman in Nebraska forced to give birth to a baby with no chance of living, then what will happen now that states such as Iowa, Ohio, North Dakota, and Nebraska find ways to claim there’s a person in there when there’s a heartbeat, or a complete strand of DNA, or even in women who aren't actually pregnant? If you can get arrested for falling down a set of stairs while in your second trimester, what happens when the law is expanded to protect embryos, zygotes and even theoretical “persons” in pregnancies that might happen in the future? 

If a woman who falls down the stairs is investigated, it’s not a leap to suggest that women could be investigated for doing anything that could harm a real or theoretical embryo--drinking, riding roller coasters, jumping on trampolines, either while pregnant or even just sexually active while being fertile. You can scoff, but consider that a moment ago you were scoffing at the idea that a pregnant woman could be arrested for accidentally falling down the stairs and then going to the hospital to make sure her baby was okay.    

These laws and incidents are just the tip of a large iceberg that makes up an all-out assault on women’s rights and health. Last month, Ms. Magazine put together a nationwide map of all the states considering legislation to restrict a woman’s right to control her own body. In many cases, there are ostensible pro-woman arguments--ultrasound laws and counseling laws are issued with claims that they are about “informed consent”--but in reality, every single one will do nothing but increase women’s pain and suffering. As the examples in Iowa and Nebraska show, even claims that these laws are about fetal life fall short, because women in situations where terminating a healthy pregnancy isn’t an option still face harassment and arrest if they end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Claims giving fetuses the rights of people are demonstrated, once again, to be cover stories for attempts to deprive women their status as full persons in the eyes of the law.