by Caitlin Willenbrink, chair, Kentucky Health Justice Network board of directors and chair, Kentucky Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice board of directors
This article is cross-published in Kentucky Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice's Fall 2014 Voice for Choice newsletter.
This year, constitutional amendments to define personhood as beginning at conception will be on the ballot in two states, North Dakota and Colorado. These fetal personhood measures are a dangerous tactic that national anti-choice organizations are undertaking as a strategy to undermine abortion rights, but the effect of the policy would be much more widespread than that.
Personhood measures undermine the bodily autonomy of pregnant people and all people and create situations where a citizen could be criminally prosecuted for a miscarriage, in vitro fertilization, or even using emergency contraception.
Unfortunately, we do have case studies of the implications of fetal personhood policy, even though no state has yet adopted such a measure. Bestowing fetuses with personhood through policies like fetal harm laws can and has lead to pregnant people losing basic human rights as a result only of their pregnancy.
Alabama’s “Chemical Endangerment of a Child” law was written to give the state power to prosecute parents who knowingly expose their children – to deter people from bringing children to places where controlled substances are produced or distributed, such as methamphetamine laboratories. But since it was enacted, more than 100 women who became pregnant and tested positive for a controlled substance have been arrested. Some have experienced pregnancy losses, but the majority have continued their pregnancies to term and given birth to healthy children.
Recently, a similar bill passed in Tennessee to authorize the criminal prosecution of pregnant people who use drugs. A related case arose recently in Montana, where a woman who was 12 weeks pregnant was arrested for having a positive drug test. Leaving aside the tenuous research that links drug use with poor pregnancy outcomes, as well as our own judgments on pregnant people who experience addiction, from these cases we can see how laws like these, and the treatment of a fetus as having equal rights as the person carrying it, have proven time and again to lead to the less-than human treatment of pregnant people. People who experience addiction – especially those who are also pregnant – deserve support and treatment, not shame and imprisonment.
In many cases, it’s led to medical interventions being forced on, or refused to, a pregnant person. In the high-profile case of Savita Halappanavar in Ireland, who suffering from a miscarriage at about 17 weeks pregnant. When she sought medical attention and treatment, her requests an abortion were refused – she was told that due to her fetus retaining a heartbeat and her life not appearing to be in physiological danger, abortion was not legal. Savita went into septic shock due to the fetal remains in her uterus, and her condition deteriorated rapidly. She died a few days later of organ failure and cardiac arrest.
However someone feels about abortion, we should be able to agree that criminalizing a pregnant person and applying a law differently to them simply because they are pregnant is wrong. Kentucky Health Justice Network, together with the Kentucky Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, is opposed to any such personhood measure, and we are demonstrating that opposition by standing with organizations who challenging these measures on the ground.
North Dakotans Against Measure 1 (www.ndam1.org) are lobbying against the amendment in that state, and in Colorado, a wide swath of reproductive justice organizations is coming together the NO on 67 campaign (www.voteno67.com).
These measures purport to be only about abortion, but advocates conservative and liberal alike realize their destructive possibilities. In both states, the measures are very broadly and unclearly written, so in both states, organizations as wide-ranging as Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, bar associations, and even the AARP have come out in opposition to them.
Learn more and get involved by following the above-mentioned campaigns and at National Advocates for Pregnant Women (www.advocatesforpregnantwomen.org).
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