An extreme offshoot of the pro-life–er, forced-birth–movement is rearing its head once again. Last month, at least three state legislatures–Alabama, Missouri, and South Carolina–considered “personhood” amendments to their state constitutions which would declare a fetus to be a legal person from the moment of conception. If passed, they would effectively criminalize abortion in all cases. Well, a former federal magistrate has some very hard and very important questions for those who think personhood bills are a good idea.
You may recall that for a time, the personhood movement gained its highest-profile champion to date when then-presidential candidate Mike Huckabee promised that if elected, he would unilaterally declare fetuses to be persons as defined by the 5th and 14th Amendments–and send in the FBI and the National Guard to shut down clinics if necessary. Watch Huckabee discuss his plan while on the stump in Iowa last summer.
This was easily the most extreme statement on abortion I’ve ever heard from a major-party candidate in my lifetime. But before Huckabee went out on this limb, he would have done well to have a chat with Vanzetta Penn McPherson, a federal magistrate judge for the Middle District of Alabama from 1992 to 2006. Soon after Alabama’s legislature took up its personhood bill, McPherson wrote an op-ed that ran in Saturday’s edition of The Montgomery Advertiser to give her thoughts on this and other bills that she called “at best, ill-conceived, and at worst, absurd.”
You never want to hear a judge call something “ill-conceived” or “absurd.” When a judge uses those terms, he or she isn’t just saying your argument is wrong, but that you have no argument at all. As McPherson sees it, if you consider some simple questions, you’ll see why these personhood bills fall into those categories.
For starters, there’s presently no way to know when a woman conceives–so a personhood amendment would put the government in the position of unilaterally determining a prenatal child’s “birthdate.” McPherson wonders if that would mean prenatal children would count in the census, as well as in the redistricting process. She also wonders if embryos would be eligible for welfare benefits upon conception, as well as for bequests upon the death of a parent or grandparent.
McPherson thinks a personhood amendment would also play hell with criminal law. She wonders if it would keep a pregnant woman from serving any jail time, or result in her being released too soon. After all, a fetus would be “entitled to equal protection under the law.”
As many critics of these bills–including a number of abortion opponents–have pointed out, McPherson asks if personhood amendments could potentially tie the hands of doctors. For instance, if a woman has an ectopic pregnancy–an embryo that attaches outside the womb–scientific opinion is unanimous that the pregnancy must be terminated. Not only is it not viable, but if untreated it could cause a woman to die from a ruptured Fallopian tube. And yet, if these personhood amendments became law, a doctor could be putting himself at risk for murder charges if he ends the pregnancy. The same would hold true if a pregnant woman has cancer or heart trouble. McPherson also muses that women who freeze their embryos could potentially be forced to deliver them right away to stay out of jail.
Whenever personhood amendments get on the ballot, they lose–and lose big. And that’s true even in states that are redder than overripe strawberries. No doubt it’s because people on both sides of the abortion divide have actually peered into the guts of these bills and taken the time to ask questions like those posed by McPherson.
Add Alabama to the list; its personhood amendment died last week without even coming up for a vote. Although the Republicans have a two-thirds supermajority in the chamber, they weren’t able to hold on to enough of their members to beat back a Democratic filibuster. Hopefully if enough legislators in Missouri and South Carolina read McPherson’s questions, their monstrosities will also go down in flames.