As we witness a state by state erosion of abortion rights, we can clearly see particular patterns of attacks that have emerged. Because the right to safe and legal abortion has been guaranteed by the Constitution, state legislators are unable to ban abortions outright. In the past few years, anti-choice advocates and legislators have sought to circumvent the Constitution by introducing bills that chip away at abortion access. Two weeks ago, I wrote about one type of attack – TRAP laws. While these laws don’t directly ban abortion, they introduce unnecessary procedures and regulations that, in the end, limit the availability of abortion services.
In recent years, anti-abortion legislators have also attempted to circumvent Roe v. Wade by introducing legislation that redefines viable life. These bills, dubbed "personhood bills," claim that life begins at conception (or fertilization) and that this fetal life is more important than the wishes and health of the mother. Personhood bills attempt to confer rights onto fetuses by extending the legal concept of “personhood” to include the unborn. Some personhood bills are direct. In 2013, legislators in several states introduced bills that attempted to define “personhood” at conception. Alabama’s SB 205, for example, defined “person” as “all human beings resulting from the union of the male sperm with the female egg either from sexual intercourse or in the case of in vitro fertilization, the fertilized egg or eggs relied on by a physician for implantation in the uterus.”
More insidious are bills that include “personhood language.” These bills don’t necessarily suggest that life begins at inception. Instead, these bills include language that bestows legal rights onto fetuses. In 2013, Arkansas and Kansas passed bills with personhood language. Arkansas’s SB 417 modifies the definition of “person” in the criminal code and in wrongful death actions in such a way that it includes fetuses. Kansas’s HB 2253 is an omnibus abortion bill that both defines life at conception and confers rights onto fetuses. The Kansas bill declares that, 1) life begins at fertilization; 2) “unborn children” have interests in life, health, and well-being that should be protected; and 3) parents of “unborn children” have protectable interests in the life, health, and well-being of their “unborn children.” Maine defeated its own personhood bill, LD 1193 “An Act to Allow a Wrongful Death Cause of Action for the Death of an Unborn Child,” in June of 2013.
Personhood language can sometimes be used to amend already existing laws. Just this week, one of South Carolina's Senate subcommittees passed a bill that would extend the states "stand your ground" self-defense laws to include fetuses. The current law allows individuals to use deadly force against the threat of "imminent peril of death or great bodily injury." By conferring rights onto the fetus, this bill goes further by allowing a pregnant person to use deadly force if they feel their fetus is being threatened. You can read about South Carolina's bills here.
Proponents of these personhood bills often claim that they are invested in the safety, health, and well-being of both pregnant women and their children. However, these bills are far from protective measures. Advocating for laws that deem that an embryo's rights are more important than a woman's rights is not a pro-woman stance.