Round-up and thoughts on this “personhood” silliness
A number of great responses out there today to RedState’s threatening and hyper-offensive, not-a-little-racist anti-choice post discussed below. Here’s a sample.
Scott Lemieux dismisses the whole “fetuses are persons” argument as right wing nuttery, nuttery that was basically concocted as a rationalization for a pre-existing anti-women’s right belief:
If the problem with Roe is that fetuses were not declared persons, then the dissenters were just as wrong as the majority, Scalia and Thomas just as wrong as Stevens and Ginsburg. As far as I can tell, no federal judge has ever made such a claim, for the obvious reasons that 1)only a vanishingly small minority of people believes it (or, at least, is willing to act as if the belief were true) and 2)it would require legal policies whose unworkability only begins with the fact that all 50 states would be constitutionally required to prosecute women who obtain abortions for first-degree murder. Unlike the position of the Dred Scott dissenters — which took all of three years to be vindicated in a national election — the idea that fetuses are constitutionally protected “persons” is a fringe if not crackpot position.
Adam Serwer runs the risk of being told he can’t read English by understanding RedState a little too well:
As Mark Kleiman writes, the Confederacy seceded because they were afraid that Abraham Lincoln’s victory might lead to slavery being abolished; they weren’t seceding in defense of the personhood of slaves. To the extent that “mass bloodshed” was necessary, it was because the Confederates refused to hew to the potential outcomes produced by democratic institutions, which is precisely what the editors at RedState are threatening. The abolitionists would have been perfectly happy to have gotten the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments without 600,000 thousand Americans giving their lives on the battlefield.
The reason for this bizarre reading of history is that conservatives both lionize the Confederacy’s treason in defense of slavery and they want to usurp the moral legitimacy of slavery abolitionists by drawing a direct comparison between the personhood of black people and embryos. This is an impossible task.
Ta-Nehisi Coates draws out objections to the argument that if black people get to be considered people, so should fetuses without functioning brains, drawing on historical realities:
In that difference lies the racism implicit in the abortion/slavery analogy Santorum employs and Klein defends. The analogy necessarily holds that the enslaved were the equivalent of embryos–helpless, voiceless beings in need of saviors. In this view of American history, the saviors, much like the pro-life movement, are white. In fact, African-Americans, unlike, say, zygotes, were always quite outspoken on their fitness for self-determination. Indeed, from the Cimaroons to Equiano to Nat Turner to Harriet Tubman to the 54th regiment, slaves were quite vociferous on the matter of their enslavement. It is simply impossible to imagine the end of slavery without the action of slaves themselves. And it is equally impossible to say the same about the end of abortion, if only because fetuses are generally incapable of egressing from the womb and setting up maroon societies, publishing newspapers or returning to the womb to “liberate” other presumably endangered fetuses.
I appreciate the work he put into that, because I tend just to revolt at the equation of breathing, feeling, perceiving black people with fetuses who do none of those things. His entire post is well worth reading, as are all the posts above.
Ta-Nehisi requests a gender analysis of the claim that fetuses are “persons” in the post, and I’m happy to oblige. I’ve long held that the notion that someone is a person at conception is fundamentally sexist, for two reasons. One is the most obvious—it’s a rationalization for a pre-existing belief that sexually active women should pay for their sinfulness with forced childbirth, and particularly that unmarried ones are obligated to pay for their naughty behavior by shotgun marriages or giving their babies up to worthy married couples who want babies. That anti-abortion views are usually held (with some exceptions that only developed after decades of anti-choice propaganda) alongside support for abstinence-only education, depriving single mothers of access to a social safety net, hysteria over the “hook-up culture”, general anti-feminist views, and a willingness to cut funding for contraception services that could reduce abortion rates is proof of this. That most anti-choice energies are focused on restricting access for young women women and poor women shores this up.
The other reason is more of a philosophical one, about the credit we give to women and their work. The patriarchy has, above all other things, functioned throughout history by denying women’s agency, authority, and the value of their labor. A huge part of this project is denying that women are the ones who make babies. Much effort is exhausted in convincing people not to believe their lying eyes looking at pregnant ladies, but to believe that men are the source of new life. Men are traditionally given pretty much all the credit for making babies. We traditionally name babies after men, as if they were the ones who did it. Lineage, at least in our culture (the one being examined) has been traditionally passed through the father’s side. Our expressions regarding pregnancy hint at a model where men are the agents and women are passive—planting a seed, bun in the oven, when you were a twinkle in your father’s eye. Even when we discovered that conception requires a cell from each parent, we assumed, incorrectly, that the egg sits there passively to be fertilized by the sperm, instead of viewing it as a merger that involves both cells going on a journey to meet and merge, which is biologically more accurate.
To say that something is a person as soon as conception happens is to claim, in essence, that men make babies by ejaculating. To say that it’s a person at birth is to say women make babies by being pregnant for 9 months, and that while the father kicked in some DNA, the person who actually made the baby—provided the time, energy, calories, proteins—was the mother. Which also happens to be true.
This idea is threatening to sexists, who generally disregard the value of women’s work anyway, but especially will not give credit to women for doing something as amazing as bringing a new life into the world. And especially not since they’ve had thousands of years of patriarchal propaganda to lean on. (Seriously, even the Bible has the first woman being born of a man, a neat reversal of reality which shows how deeply this insecurity runs.) I’m not saying this to be triumphalist, either. I don’t want kids and am generally not very interested in babies. I’m far more interested, personally, in claiming the right to be credited for your work in areas where I actually do work. My understanding of this is about as intellectualized and removed as it gets. If anything, I find the fierce desire of so many sexist men to take even this away from women kind of baffling. But I do see very clearly how this obsession with saying that fetuses are persons goes right back to a belief that men are the only ones who do anything worth doing.