How Mississippi's Vote Today Could Put Pregnant Women Under State Control

A personhood amendment is a backdoor to stripping away women’s rights -- their very right to be considered autonomous human beings.

Tuesday’s ballot initiative in Mississippi regarding a constitutional amendment that would grant fertilized eggs legal personhood is polling right down to the wire, with 45% of Mississippians favoring it and 44% opposed. Gender influences opinion on this initiative somewhat, with men favoring it by six percentage points and women opposing it by four percentage points. Race and party affiliation has even more influence, with Democrats and African-Americans registering around 60% opposition to the amendment. This suggests that the racial and class-based aspects to this amendment that have passed national attention aren’t passing the attention of Mississippi voters, and hopefully fear of this law will be enough to keep personhood for fertilized eggs from becoming law.  

Most of the national attention to this ballot initiative has focused on the potential effects it could have on access to abortion and birth control, as supporters of the personhood amendment erroneously claim that hormonal birth control works by killing fertilized eggs. (All forms, including emergency contraception, work by preventing ovulation.) These are very real concerns, of course, but not out of the ordinary for an anti-choice movement that spends most of its time trying to restrict access to contraception and abortion. The personhood represents an even more disturbing shift rightwards, because if it’s passed into law it will turn women of reproductive age into a criminally suspicious class whose privacy will be invaded and basic rights ignored, all with the pretense of protecting this new class of “persons”. If this law passes in Mississippi, women who have miscarriages could be facing the handcuffs, and pregnant women could very well lose basic freedoms to a state that uses the fetus in their bodies as an excuse to control them.  

And the women who will be most affected will be those who are already targeted routinely by law enforcement: poorer women, young women, and women of color.  

The campaign for the personhood amendment fallaciously claims that they’re just trying to return Mississippi to a pre-Roe state, but this is simply and demonstrably untrue. Fertilized eggs didn’t have personhood status prior to 1973; bans on abortion and contraception were generally justified by the state arguing it had a right to control sexual morality, which is why the court decided Roe on the basis of sexual privacy rights. Under pre-Roe laws, doctors were mainly the ones prosecuted for providing abortion, but under personhood laws, a woman who procures an abortion has taken a hit out on a legal “person”, and can also be charged with a crime. At it’s foremost, this is about expanding the power of the state to throw women in jail for private medical choices.  

But there’s so much more at stake with this wild expansion of state control over women’s bodies. That’s why it’s ridiculous for personhood amendment supporters to wave off concerns that this law will lead to imprisoning women for miscarriages. If embryos count as “persons”, then it’s entirely possible and in fact likely that the state will start investigating women who miscarry. Like Will Saletan writing for Slate notes

    A woman who suffers a miscarriage would be prosecuted not because she had a miscarriage, but because police and prosecutors suspect she might have had an abortion. You would certainly be investigated if your born child disappeared and you said it had died in an accident. 

But the law gets involved in the deaths of minors for more reasons than murder. An investigation into your miscarriage may clear you of deliberate abortion, but the detectives may turn up enough evidence to prosecute you for manslaughter due to neglect. Did you drink a beer? Did you decide to wait a couple months before starting your prenatal care? Did you eat soft cheeses or carnivorous fish, both of which are not recommended for pregnant women? Did you work a job that required you to lift heavy objects? Did you use cleaning products with strong chemicals in them? Live in an area heavy with pollution? Have sex while pregnant? All these may be cause for suspicion and maybe even charges if you miscarry. 

It may seem far-fetched, but zealous prosecutors, eager to show themselves off as champions of idealized motherhood, have already started in many conservative areas to prosecute women for giving birth to stillborns if they used drugs while pregnant, even if there’s no evidence connecting the drugs to the stillbirth. Since a chain of evidence isn’t necessary in stillbirth cases, we have every reason to expect that it won’t be seen as particularly necessary in miscarriage cases. Prosecutors just need to paint the accused as a bad mother-to-be and let jury prejudice do the rest. 

Conservatives are already pushing for wide expansion of the right to drug test working class and poor people, by putting a piss test in every employment and welfare office. This law provides an excuse for widespread pregnancy testing of women who are in the criminal justice system and subsequent charges of “child abuse”. It may not be too long before young women arrested for drug possession or petty crimes are finding themselves forced to pee on sticks in jail, with extra charges filed for exposing “minors” to these crimes if these tests turn up positive.  

This is why we can expect this law to be used disproportionately against more vulnerable women. Poor women and women of color have been the primary targets for stillbirth prosecutions, even though drug use is common across all class and race boundaries. Law enforcement officials often have an image of model motherhood in their minds, an image that is very white and middle class, and women who don’t fit that image are much more likely to arouse suspicion.  

In addition to targeting women who miscarry and arouse suspicion of being less than ideal pregnant women, this bill could extend the right to the state to make embryos and fetuses wards of the state, which in turn would dissolve the pregnant woman’s basic autonomy. In other words, you may not even have to miscarry for law enforcement to deem you a threat to your embryo and use that as a pretense to detain and control you, as doing so is the only way to “protect” the embryo. If embryos are persons, everything a pregnant woman does she’s doing to the “person” inside her. If you have a cigarette or a glass of wine, they could charge you with distribution to minors.  

To make all this even more frightening, the law would define personhood as beginning at fertilization, which is before a woman is even pregnant, since pregnancy often begins days after fertilization, when an egg implants in the uterine lining. Even after a pregnancy officially begins, many women don’t detect it for weeks. This would mean that a personhood law would turn all women of reproductive age into a class of people who could, in theory, have “persons” inside them, regardless of their actual or perceived pregnancy status. This has infinite potential in giving the state power to restrict the choices and movements of all women of reproductive age, in order to protect the theoretical people inside them.  

Personhood supporters have already indicated a desire to limit the rights of non-pregnant women using this bill by preventing women from having access to hormonal contraception on the grounds that it could prevent fertilized eggs from surviving, even though there is no scientific evidence to support this conclusion. If they succeed in banning the pill by arguing that the state has a right to restrict any activity that could, in theory, cause a fertilized egg not to implant in a non-pregnant woman, why would conservatives stop there? Many activities could, in theory, cause fertilized eggs to die: exercise, working overtime, taking all sorts of medications that aren’t the pill, using certain kinds of products, eating certain kinds of food, studying really hard, juggling a job and a family life. Restricting women from holding certain jobs seen as “men’s work” is a low-hanging fruit should this bill pass. It’s easy to see how this law would be selectively enforced to attack young women and working class women whose choices are already viewed with suspicion by conservatives.  

At its core, a personhood amendment is a backdoor to stripping away women’s rights, and not just their reproductive rights, but their very right to be considered autonomous human beings. After all, if there’s another person---or theoretical person---inside you with equal rights to you, then the concept of “autonomy” has no meaning at all. Feminists worked gallantly for most of American history to define women as separate human beings, instead of extensions of the men in their lives. This bill undoes all that work by instead defining women as life support systems for existing or even potential embryos.

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