How 'Personhood' Hurts Real People

Some Say Unborn Babies and Corporations Are People, Too

Personhood and You: By expanding the meaning of ‘personhood,’ activists may wind up weakening the rights of real people.
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Personhood and You: By expanding the meaning of ‘personhood,’ activists may wind up weakening the rights of real people.

By J.J. Goldberg

Published August 01, 2012, issue of August 03, 2012.
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If you’re discouraged by the nasty, vapid tone of this year’s presidential politics, you might want to take a fresh look at our states and counties, where hand-to-hand battles are being fought over a critical issue of real substance: Who (or what) is a person?

Most of us think we know the answer intuitively. A person is a two-legged being that can laugh, imagine the future and cut you off on the freeway. And, in certain cases, howl at 3:00 a.m. for a fresh diaper.

But today’s America is about nothing if not stretching boundaries. When it comes to personhood, we’re stretching in two directions. At the front end, efforts are under way to confer personhood status on fertilized ova, those tiny bits of existing persons that fuse in the fallopian tube, permitting possible uterine attachment and, with luck, eventual emergence as a new biped.

At the back end, we’re talking about groups of actual persons who open a joint bank account and register in Delaware.

After simmering near the margins of political discourse for decades, these two redefinitions have lately burst onto center-stage. At least 16 states and a handful of counties and other jurisdictions, as well as the U.S. Supreme Court, have considered measures over the past year to redraw one or the other of those boundaries. Results have been mixed.

There are differences between the two campaigns, of course. For one, corporate personhood is already the law of the land, and has been for two centuries. The current struggles pit conservatives who want to expand the rights of corporate “persons” against liberals who want to narrow or end them. The other sort of personhood — let’s call it fallopian personhood — is not yet recognized in law anywhere. The legal battles to win recognition represent the cutting edge of the religious conservative war against abortion.

Measures to recognize fallopian personhood surfaced in 16 states this year, mostly as bills in legislatures or as signature-gathering campaigns for ballot initiatives. None has succeeded yet, but a few came close. New Hampshire’s bill was approved by both chambers before being vetoed by the governor. Bills in three states passed in one chamber but stalled in the other. Three others are still moving through legislatures, including in Mississippi, where voters rejected it as a ballot initiative last fall.

As for state ballot initiatives, four failed to collect enough signatures. Three are still under way, including Colorado, where voters previously rejected it twice. Finally, Georgia has an initiative on the July 30 GOP primary ballot, calling on legislators to amend the state constitution so that the rights of every “human being” are protected from their “earliest biological beginning,” meaning from fertilization. (Even the state’s two Catholic bishops are opposed; they say it’s morally sound but unconstitutional.)


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