Personhood arguments fail, but fight for reproductive rights goes on

December 30, 2011

A district judge ruled last week that a ballot measure that would change the legal definition of personhood to include fertilized human eggs in Nevada provides "inadequate" information on its potential effects on access to birth control, in-vitro fertilization, treatment for ectopic pregnancies, and stem cell research.

Nevada District Judge James E. Wilson ordered sponsors of the proposal to add the following language before attempting to collect the 72,352 signatures needed to get on next year’s ballot:

The initiative would protect a prenatal person regardless of whether or not the prenatal person would live, grow, or develop in the womb or survive birth; prevent all abortions even in the case of rape, incest, or serious threats to the woman’s health or life, or when a woman is suffering from a miscarriage, or as an emergency treatment for an ectopic pregnancy. The initiative will impact some rights Nevada women currently have to access certain fertility treatments such as in vitro fertilization. The initiative will impact some rights Nevada women currently have to utilize some forms of birth control, including the “pill;” and to access certain fertility treatments such as in vitro fertilization. The initiative will affect embryonic stem cell research, which offers potential for treating diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, heart disease, and others.

Kudos to Judge Wilson for ensuring that Nevada residents are made aware of the measure's potential impact on women. Given that a similar proposal failed earlier this year in the much more conservative state of Mississippi, the chances are good that Nevada residents will reject this measure. 

Of course, what Wilson did not say is that the amendment -- and others like it -- is absurd both conceptually and legally. Philosophically speaking, personhood is not granted to mere "human life," which includes small collections of cells, but to beings that have some degree of sentience, self-awareness, or agency. Fertilized human eggs clearly lack all three, as do fetuses until at least 28 weeks. Legally speaking, even if a personhood measure passed, it would be shot down as clearly violating the Supreme Court's ruling in the 1973 case Roe v. Wade, and several later decisions.

The former point is an especially important one. Reproductive rights advocates often sidestep the personhood argument and frame the abortion debate as an issue of "women’s rights." Yet abortion is only a woman’s right because the personhood argument is wrong. Recognition of this logic has important implications. You can read more about my thoughts on this here.

But perhaps more importantly, the failure of the personhood movement does not necessarily mark progress in the fight for reproductive rights. The personhood push was actually just one small part of the religious right's much larger war on reproductive rights in 2011. It is safe to assume that this trend will continue in 2012.

Furthermore, despite a string of favorable court rulings, women still face enormous challenges in exercising their reproductive rights. As Rachel Maddow has reported via the Alan Guttmacher Institute, it is impossible to get an abortion in 87 percent of all U.S. counties. In fact, there is only one abortion clinic in the entire state of Mississippi. As Maddow said, "Why bother making it illegal if you can just make it impossible to get?"

The moral landscape is not set for rapid change, so reproductive rights advocates should be prepared in 2012 to both fight measures that restrict access to safe and legal reproductive health care, and actively work to increase access to such care across the U.S.