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

(page 2 of 2)

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


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!
  • Will Lubavitcher Rabbi Moshe Wiener be the next Met Council CEO?
  • Angelina Jolie changed everything — but not just for the better:
  • Prime Suspect? Prime Minister.
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • 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.