There has been much activity across the country regarding personhood and abortion lately. As fellow Considerer Melanie Kruvelis described at the end of last week, the Protect Life Act was just passed, which prohibits women under the Affordable Care Act to purchase any health insurance plans that cover abortions (which is close to about 80% of all insurances). Also, during the state ballot on November 9th, Mississippi voters will be determining whether or not personhood officially starts at conception, a hot debate for well over 40 years. Though Mississippi is currently the only state with a “personhood” initiative, planning efforts exist in at least five other states for next year’s ballot, including Florida, Montana, and Ohio. Let’s just say I have a lot to dish out about this topic.
I would say there are three main components to these life debates: the concept of bio-power, changes in perception of “personhood,” and the constant waves of new technologies. Bio-power has been around since the earliest civilizations.; it’s the idea of governing people as biological beings through medicine. From a gross perspective, nation states want large and healthy populations to be able to fight and work. To do so, they collect information about their populations, first calling it “political anatomy,” then “social mathematics,” and today “vital statistics.” Bio-power is the force that not only makes us complete annual physical forms to attend school, work, etc. but also created personal health norms for each individual such as brushing your teeth often, washing your hands, and practicing safe sex. These anatamo-politics promote health and encourage people to govern themselves as “proper citizens.”
As pointed out by Michel Foucault, sex wasn’t really even articulated until the late 19th century in Western Europe and the US. It was scrutinized and abortionists became the target of control and surveillance. It’s interesting to see how thoughts about the anatamo-political idea of abortion changed throughout history from a bird’s eye view. Pope Innocent II (1200) stated that abortion was only to be considered homicide after you were able to feel the baby kicking. Two hundred years later, abortion was considered to be witchcraft, not murder. By the end of the 16th century, church rule under Pope Gregory, both contraception and abortion was considered a crime because it sins against marriage. And by the 19th century, abortion was outlawed by the British Parliament as well as in most of the US.
A big turning point for abortion politics was the landmark case Roe v. Wade (1973), which extended a woman’s decision to have an abortion due to privacy rights under the due process clause in the Fourteenth Amendment. The two interests that regulate these abortions are protecting prenatal life and protecting the mother’s health. This case brings the newly passed Protect Life Act under consideration. Instead of taking both interests into account, it seems as though this Act is trying to make a point by serving to protect prenatal life, while neglecting the mother’s health. The big question here really comes down to “when does life begin?”
We are used to the idea of personhood being an ascribed status achieved in an instance, whether at conception, at viability, or at birth. Seeing how this varies around the world provides us with an interesting perspective:
- In Arunta (central Australia), premature infants are considered to be the young of some other animal (such as a kangaroo) that has mistakenly entered the woman’s body.
- Nuer people believe that a child doesn’t achieve personhood until they can tether cattle, herd goats, and clean byres (usually around six years of age). Until this point, the parents don’t even mourn for their children if they die– their civilization’s bio-power has not yet deemed them persons.
- Within the Toba Qom in Bolivia, if a woman dies during childbirth the child is buried with her, even if it’s alive. If both mother and child survive childbirth then the baby is not a person until it stops breast feeding, which is the same time that it is finally named.
- On the other end of the spectrum, Chippewa Indians believe personhood comes much earlier than birth. A miscarried infant, even as early as 2-3 months into the pregnancy, is cleaned like a newborn child, wrapped up, and a feast is given for it before it’s burial.
- In a more relatable instance, British vital statistics in hospitals didn’t distinguish between miscarriages and stillborn infants for a while. According to their birth certificates, they weren’t yet legal persons.
New technology is changing the way we think about personhood, and sparking up debates that never have existed before. As a quick tangent from the unborn, I shift attention to the brain dead. Without the technology to see the lack of brain activity, a brain dead being would still be considered a person. However, proving that the brain is dead yet the body is alive now allows us to legally harvest that being’s organs. Seeing something makes it more real. That’s why now, with the spark of new medical visualizing technologies, we are able to not only see what an embryo looks like, but also dissociate it from it’s human host. Furthermore, once the baby is outside the womb, it no longer relies on it’s mother’s breastmilk. Due to our flourishing technologies, an infant only needs to be provided with formula. All of these changes foster the idea that personhood comes before birth.
Personally, I believe that viability plays the biggest role in this debate, not fingernails or other trivial matters that anti-abortionists use to power their debates about personhood. Note the word “personally.” This matter is different around the world as well as different for each individual. That’s why Mississippi legally deciding when personhood begins really angers me. Bio-power should not revolve around this issue and I truly hope voters see that this law shouldn’t be so strictly mandated by the state.
(Photo by Neil Coleman under a Creative Commons license)
By: Tanya Rogovyk