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.
getty images
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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.)


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.