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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One initiative that will appear on the ballot this fall is a corporate personhood measure in Montana. Voters will decide whether to instruct the state’s congressional delegation to support a constitutional amendment declaring that corporations are not persons. This comes in response to a 5–4 U.S. Supreme Court ruling this past June, overturning a century-old Montana law that barred corporate funding in state elections.

Local efforts for a corporations-aren’t-persons amendment are gathering signatures in rural counties in New York and California. In Chicago, the city council is considering a resolution calling for an amendment.

Corporate personhood won’t be easy to undo. It was first recognized way back in 1819 by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that corporations had the same rights as individuals to enter and enforce contracts, to sue and be sued. The idea was to secure the corporation’s standing as a business entity.

Logic gave way to mischief in 1888, when the justices ruled that since corporations were persons, they were entitled to the “equal protection of the laws” guaranteed by the 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868 to protect freed slaves. “All persons born or naturalized in the United States” were entitled under the amendment to the full “privileges” and “immunities” of citizenship, including protection of their “life, liberty or property.” It’s never been clear how a corporation could be considered “born or naturalized,” but this was the Gilded Age of Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan, and money made anything possible.

Congress moved in 1907, during the Progressive Era, to outlaw corporate spending in federal election campaigns. But that ended with the dawn of the new Gilded Era, when the high court ruled in 1978 that banning corporations’ campaign spending violated their freedom of speech. Being “persons,” it seems, doesn’t just enable corporations to enter and enforce contracts, which was the original point of the fiction. It gives them basic human rights.

But there’s a catch. While corporations enjoy the same rights and freedoms as us flesh-and-blood slobs — free speech, property rights, due process, presumption of innocence, freedom from illegal search and seizure — they don’t share our accountability. If you or I get caught robbing a widow, we’ll likely go to jail. A corporation can’t. Sometimes its officers can be indicted, but they’re just as likely to act like 7-year-olds and blame their invisible friends Goldman and Sachs.

So much for the differences between the two personhood campaigns. What about their similarities? Well, it might not be instantly apparent, but each redefinition of personhood stretches the meaning of human rights outward to cover new types of beings — bits of people at one end, clusters of people at the other. Less obvious, redefinition works like Silly Putty: Pulling the coverage toward the edges weakens the middle, where actual living, breathing persons are left less protected, less autonomous and less free.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com


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