SIMMONS: Talking about personhood isn’t enough

As Yale students, we may feel far removed from the heated debate that is gripping Mississippi. While many of us may support reproductive rights — from free birth control to abortion — in theory, merely acknowledging this position in casual conversation does little to guarantee that women continue to have access to these rights.

Today, Mississippians will vote on the Mississippi Personhood Amendment, also called Initiative 26, a proposed amendment to the state constitution which will define personhood as “every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.” What happens in Mississippi could transform women’s reproductive health as we know it.

So, what exactly does this mean? The ramifications of this amendment are ambiguous, a result of the inexact and unscientific language. The moment of fertilization is difficult to pinpoint. As many as 50 percent of fertilized eggs naturally fail to implant into the lining of the uterus. Imposing the amendment’s definition would definitely mean the end of safe, legal abortion in Mississippi under any circumstances — including in cases of rape or danger to the mother’s life or health.

However, the extreme consequences of the Personhood Amendment go far beyond abortion. Many birth control methods, including the birth control pill and the intrauterine device (IUD), function primarily by preventing ovulation. However, they also alter the lining of the uterus, so a fertilized egg would not be able to implant in the unlikely case that ovulation occurred anyway.

Under the definition of personhood proposed in the amendment, such forms of birth control would qualify as murder. Thus, if the amendment is passed, women in Mississippi could lose access to one of the most effective means of controlling their reproduction.

Even more alarming is what could happen in the U.S. if this amendment passes: Many other states may follow suit. In fact, at least seven state legislatures have considered personhood amendments.

Even if our lives may seem confined within the Yale bubble, if the national political climate continues to turn against reproductive rights, many Yale students may face hardship in accessing the reproductive health services we need in our home states. We may not think that this issue affects us right now, but we will be in the real world soon enough, facing these issues.

Though many students on this campus and, indeed, Americans, disagree on abortion, the vast majority realize that access to birth control is a necessary, basic human right. The goal of many reproductive health organizations is for all people to have adequate access to and knowledge of birth control so they can avoid unintended pregnancy and thus abortion. If birth control becomes illegal, we will face a major public health crisis.

If anyone should be aware of this, it should be Mississippi legislators: Of the 50 states, Mississippi has the highest maternal and infant mortality and morbidity rates. Access to hormonal birth control can help women decide if and when they have children, reducing the number of high-risk pregnancies that lead to premature births, low birth weight and other conditions that severely harm mothers and children.

This amendment is not simply an attack on abortion access; it is an attack on women’s fundamental right to control their own bodies. It is an attack on our power and right as human beings to choose the contraceptive methods that are right for us. Passing Initiative 26 would lead to more unwanted pregnancies, more stigma around reproductive health and less power for women and their families to make basic choices about their fertility.

As a community that values human rights and a nation that prizes freedom, we cannot afford to just talk about this issue. Instead, we should write letters to state legislators, call voters, sign petitions and make our voices heard in a public forum. If we simply talk about supporting reproductive rights but do not do take an active role in the reproductive justice movement, we risk losing these same rights.

Micha’le Simmons is a senior in Timothy Dwight College and a Planned Parenthood Campus Action Intern. Contact her at michale.simmons@yale.edu.

Comments

  • The Anti-Yale

    *it is an attack on women’s fundamental right to control their own bodies.*

    This reasoning is analogous to the safe-sex arguments at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic.

    Make medicine or prophylactics the panacea.

    The panacea is not artificial interventions. The panacea is YOU.

    A person can control their own bodies by refusing to have reproductive sex. Use different strategies for erotic pleasure than coitus. It is the cultural beatification of coitus as the sine-qua-non of sexual epicurean delight which is the problem. And it is MEN who insist on this epicurean hierarchy of erotic pleasure—-enslaving women to their “conjugal duty” as it used to be called in legal proceedings when people actually took the trouble to tie the knot before they did the deed.

    Reject the cultural programming. Emancipate yourselves.

  • YLS

    Since Mississippi currently offers unfettered access to birth control, the statistics Ms. Simmons offers are either red herrings or logically undermine her argument. It makes one wonder about the validity of her other claims.

  • River_Tam

    Planned Parenthood: trying to shrink the scope of personhood since 1942.

    By the way, I don’t know who titled this piece, but it’s incredibly misleading. Ms. Simmons doesn’t want people to talk about personhood at all. Personhood as a concept only limits her goal of abortion-on-demand. Birth control is a red herring – if we made it clear that the personhood amendment doesn’t cover IUD’s or Plan B, she’d still be against it.

    She should just say it outright – she wants abortion to be legal up until the moment of delivery. That’s what Planned Parenthood stands for, and that’s what it’s always stood for. If Yalies knew the history of their own movement, they would think twice about their position. The very *statement* “I would never get an abortion, but I think it should be legal” is code for “I’m a pretty little princess who would never kill my own valuable genes, but I read Freakonomics in High School and I really do like the idea of fewer criminals”:

    > All of our problems are the result of overbreeding among the working class, and if morality is to mean anything at all to us, we must regard all the changes which tend toward the uplift and survival of the human race as moral.

    – Margaret Sanger, 1918

    > [We propose to] hire three or four colored ministers, preferably with social-service backgrounds, and with engaging personalities. The most successful educational approach to the Negro is through a religious appeal. And we do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population, and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.

    – Margaret Sanger, 1939

    > The campaign for birth control is not merely of eugenic value, but is practically identical with the final aims of eugenics.

    – Margaret Sanger in “The Eugenic Value of Birth Control Propaganda”, 1921

    And the laugh-worthy:

    > It is a noteworthy fact that not one of the women to whom I have spoken so far believes in abortion as a practice; but it is principle for which they are standing. They also believe that the complete abolition of the abortion law will shortly do away with abortions, as nothing else will.

    Margaret Sanger, 1920

  • Jerry

    @YLS: I’m pretty sure the article (not to mention common sense) makes it amply clear that unfettered access to birth control is a necessary but not sufficient condition for low unintended pregnancy and infant mortality rates. Obviously the presence of other factors like – oh, I don’t know, abstinence-only sex education, underfunded or incomplete sex education, abusive individuals denying their partners access to birth control, sabotaging of birth control, violence at reproductive health clinics that many women rely on for access to birth control, rampage of vicious baby-killing alligator cyborgs – can also influence these rates. In fact, I’m pretty sure at least five of the above are happening in Mississippi right now.

  • RexMottram08

    Teenage pregnancy and abortion rates were DECREASING (they halved in a decade) before the introduction of sex education into the schools.

  • River_Tam

    Wait, we can’t teach abstinence-only education because kids won’t listen… so why in the world would they wrap it when they can just a shmashmortion? If Yalies are begging their hook-ups to let them stick it in without a condom on (no joke, it happens all the time), why should we be thinking that idiot high schoolers will do anything other than pull-and-pray?

    Worst case scenario, you just get an abortion, which they’ve been told in school is no big deal anyways.

  • LouieLouie

    Why do pro-lifers insist on using “pro-abortion” as opposed to “pro-choice”? That is what women deserve; a right to make a choice about their bodies and the embryo that has begun to develop in their uterus. We don’t need gray haired white men telling us what we can and cannot do with our own bodies. We don’t want a figurehead who wears long gowns, a pointed hat and designer Italian loafers telling us not to use birth control. It is our choice. Sometimes that choice is adoption or keeping the child but it is not forced upon us by law or religion. Religious fanaticism of any kind is born out of ignorance. The cure for ignorance is education. That is what is missing in the Bible thumping south and central US. These are ignorant people who blindly follow others who promise eternal life. All men are equal on earth, there are no prophets or holy men among us, we are all just people. The devious ones see the masses of ignorant souls that are quickly becoming the majority of this country and they use it to their advantage.

  • RexMottram08

    LouieLouie,

    We don’t want some Gloria Steinem copycat telling us it’s okay to decapitate a child inches from being born.

  • Branford73

    Why stop at fertilization as the point at which the state can begin its protection? Ban all sexual acts which cannot possibly result in pregnancy. The pre-conceived have rights too. Call it the Half-Personhood Act. Ban masturbation to ejaculation (See Samuel-Auguste TissotIn – L’Onanisme, published in 1760, See also John Harvey Kellogg. Both men were physicians.) and ban condom use. Exemptions could be granted to ethnic groups whose population is higher than optimal. They won’t complain because they’ll have more freedom. But white people with assets or income over a certain level will have a duty to procreate.

    The Supreme Court will see a legitimate state interest in promoting growth in population of an ethnic group which is seen as more productive and hires more people than the other groups. It’s not only utilitarian but moral, since sperm cells are living human beings, only a little handicapped by only having half the required DNA to form a full person. The rights of the half-persons are more important than sleazy sexual gratification. We all know that sexual gratification without the potential of a live birth is self-indulgent, immoral behavior.

  • LouieLouie

    Rex, not sure what you’re referring to but I’m not supporting decapitating babies at any stage of gestation. I’m supporting choice. Simple choice, that’s it. No law, no religious ideal, just a choice to decide what I want to do with my own body and my own embryo. I will not call it a child until it is a child and the first 3 or 4 months, it is not a human person. It can not live without my body to support it’s every function. It’s like a tumor, when it is removed from the human body, it cannot survive and it will cease to grow.

  • RexMottram08

    LouieLouie,

    The world you propose is a frightening place.

  • The Anti-Yale

    “what I want to do with my own body and my own embryo.”

    It’s not your OWN embryo. It’s half the sperm donor’s. Some dopnor’s want their child delivered not dismembered.

  • Aparent

    Rex, the truly “frightening place” is the place where women and child-women are forced to endure unwanted pregnancy and dangerous childbirth because they have been denied birth control and medical care. Anti, have you ever been raped, or been the victim of incest? Do you believe that a 12 year old girl can “emancipate” herself? Rex, River, and Anti, until you are willing to accept unwanted embryos into your own bodies, carry them to term, deliver, and then raise the resulting child to adulthood, you must learn to keep your religious ideals among yourselves. We are all guaranteed freedom of religion by our constitution. That includes religions that do not recognize “personhood” at conception.

  • The Anti-Yale

    My ideals are secular not “religious.” even though I wrote a paper on abortion for a religious ethics course 35 years ago which I still feel holds true http://sexandabortion.blogspot.com

    Rape is absolutely an exception to all other considerations. I might add that a colleague of mine has a three year old grandaughter who is the product of anonymous drugged date rape and whose mother decided to carry the baby to term.

  • RexMottram08

    LOL @ Aparent,

    Really? “Forcing” the CHILD to endure childbirth seen as abusive? Because killing the child is doing him or her a favor?

    There is no culpability to assign to the child in the case of rape or incest.

  • River_Tam

    > Rex, River, and Anti, until you are willing to accept unwanted embryos into your own bodies, carry them to term, deliver, and then raise the resulting child to adulthood, you must learn to keep your religious ideals among yourselves.

    I am willing to accept unwanted embryos into my body. Of course, you’ll simply say “yes, but others should have the choice not to”, so the entire proposition is a red herring. Also, I’m not sure what gave you the impression that my ideals were religious in any sense. There have been columnists in the YDN this year arguing the secular pro-life case as well.

    Note: I am completely willing to make an exception for rape, incest, and the (expansively-defined) health of the mother. However, that still leaves us with banning 95%+ of abortions. Let’s start there.

  • b12

    Of all the statistics that correlate with increases in birth control use and decreases in fertility rates, the most salient and predictive is an increase in women’s degree of education. In other words, on a macro scale, the more informed females are, the more likely they are to seek avenues to avoid pregnancy. Of course, something isn’t necessarily better just because better wealthier and better educated individuals desire it. However, the correlation between increased education and decreased fertility should suggest that there may be some merit to equipping well-informed women with the tools to pursue the lifestyle choices that they desire.

    Ultimately, the question at hand is whether or not it is appropriate to limit the freedoms of others in alignment with your personal beliefs. As a side note, I’m confident that readers here can grasp the irony of a partisan movement that professes a desire for smaller government while simultaneously endeavoring to exert control over the reproductive choices of citizens.

  • RexMottram08

    Is anyone proposing to ban birth control?

  • b12

    “Many birth control methods, including the birth control pill and the intrauterine device (IUD), function primarily by preventing ovulation. However, they also alter the lining of the uterus, so a fertilized egg would not be able to implant in the unlikely case that ovulation occurred anyway.

    Under the definition of personhood proposed in the amendment, such forms of birth control would qualify as murder. Thus, if the amendment is passed, women in Mississippi could lose access to one of the most effective means of controlling their reproduction.”

    Not a ban on birth control—only a ban on the types of birth control that women can control and utilize without the explicit facilitation of their male partners. Don’t worry: men still have all the freedoms in the world!

  • b12

    And, for the record, abortion is a highly effective means of birth control.

  • River_Tam

    > Under the definition of personhood proposed in the amendment, such forms of birth control would qualify as murder.

    Would you support the law if they made it explicit that the pill, IUD, etc were all legal?

  • River_Tam

    > As a side note, I’m confident that readers here can grasp the irony of a partisan movement that professes a desire for smaller government while simultaneously endeavoring to exert control over the reproductive choices of citizens.

    Yeah, conservatives are generally a-okay with murder because that’s what small government is really all about.

  • LouieLouie

    Antiyale, it’s apparent that you are a man with no concept of what it is like to carry a child so you should only comment on what you actually have experienced. Once that sperm takes up residence in my body, it’s mine and mine alone to decide what to do with it. If you want to keep ownership of your sperm, mix it with an egg in a petri dish and you can carry it with you. And YES, I have experienced carrying a child, three actually. It was my choice to keep these three wonderful human beings. But I also chose abortion when I was 19 years old and the embryo was 4-5 weeks old and I was not in any position; mentally, physically or emotionally to have a child. That is what PRO choice is, it’s not PRO abortion.

  • RexMottram08

    So it’s not birth control… it’s murder.

    No one proposes banning condoms. But pills that can target and destroy the most innocent of human lives? Yep, count me in. Ban it.

    You can call it birth control, but that’s just a euphemism.

  • The Anti-Yale

    Don’t tell me I don’t have half destiny ownership of the genetic outcome of that zygote. You are the host. It is NOT solely your body: It is your body with half of my genetic code as a guest. I do not know of a single code of etiquette andywhere on the planet that does not require that one be hospitable to a guest. And if you want sacred precedent, hospitality to a guest is the highest order of duty in the bible.

    Get your manners straight.

    Paul D. Keane

    M.A., M.Div., M.Ed.

  • RexMottram08

    Setting up women vs. men in opposition forgets the 3rd party of the child…

  • LouieLouie

    Rex, you’re right about that…yikes!
    Mr. Anti, I do have impeccable manners and I don’t care what the bible says or the etiquette code that you speak of; I have my own code of conduct and I’ve done very well with that thus far. You can list all the degrees you have earned but it still doesn’t make you the authority on the subject. I’m the authority on my own body and what will and will not be done with it. End of story.

  • The Anti-Yale

    Rude, selfish, inhospitable, egotistical, non-collaborative. What a prize you must be. Wouldn’t want my child co-raised by such.

  • Branford73

    The anti-choicers can say abortion should be murder and a sperm contributor should have a say in whether the pregnant female aborts, but those are not the legal realities in the present day. Maybe the world is a scary place for you Rex, because of these are current legal realities, not proposals. Scariness is a perspective thing. Pro-choicers are scared of the world you and the personhood laws would bring us.

    If the personhood thing passes in Mississippi I can envision a prosecutor looking to make a name bringing a case against a woman who obtains an IUD out of state but travels to Mississippi for conspiracy to commit murder. I’m unclear on jurisdictional questions, though. I’m not sure whether Mississippi could prosecute if the conspiracy occurs outside the state but the harm (potential death of embryo) occurs within the state. He might have to prove she has or plans to have sex within the state.

  • bcrosby

    http://www.feministe.us/blog/archives/2011/11/08/common-sense-time/

    Even if you identify as pro-life, I don’t see a good reason to support this legislation – it’s vague, dangerously poorly-worded, and will only hurt women making difficult reproductive decisions.

  • River_Tam

    > I do not know of a single code of etiquette andywhere on the planet that does not require that one be hospitable to a guest

    Walder Frey’s code.

  • The Anti-Yale

    Walder Frey? You mean the silent partner of Scrooge and Marley?

  • bcrosby

    River_Tam, you and I may disagree about almost everything, but you clearly have impeccable taste in literature and television.

  • drdebra

    Perhaps most of the readers are too young to remember what it was like to have no choice.
    We take for granted what we have been given and did not have to fight for. Once the right is
    lost, this generation will understand why reproductive rights are so fundamental. I sincerely doubt abortion has ever been a happy choice for anyone to make. I have worked with many people who are “pro-life” and have 5,6 or more children, but do not in any way support their children either emotionally or financially. People who do practice birth control are typically more likely to be caring and responsible parents…when they are ready. There is a point being missed however, in this little trickster coining of the phrase “parenthood”. The real intention is to curtail stem-cell research. I have no personal investment in stem-cell research but have enough empathy for people who would truly benefit from advances in stem cell research to recognize the need for advances in this field to continue. As for anyone who really wants to understand when viable and cognizant life “begins” study embryology and then decide. Base your decision on knowledge not emotion.

  • The Anti-Yale

    *As for anyone who really wants to understand when viable and cognizant life “begins” study embryology and then decide*
    You omit theology.

  • Standards

    Aww, it’s cute that you think theology is the least bit relevant for answering scientific questions.

  • LtwLimulus90

    It’s pretty relevant for moral questions, Standards

  • The Anti-Yale

    Standards,

    Don’t be a sarcastic snit.

    I didn’t say it was “relevant”. You’re a candidate for matchmaking with LouieLouie. You two would make a bilious couple together.

    I said it had been omitted. Since it is one of the biggest players in this debate, I think that’s a curious bit of myopia or aversion.

  • RexMottram08

    The amount of legal positivism and scientism on display here is amazing. Who says Yalies have no religion?

  • Standards

    If you want to claim theology is relevant for moral questions, be my guest. It’s not. Theological voluntarism is hardly a viable philosophy, and Plato’s Euthyphro more or less made short order of the idea thousands of years ago.

    And I object to the idea that leaving out an irrelevant player in a “debate” is myopic. It’s acknowledging it as irrelevant. When life starts is not a moral or religious question. It is patently a scientific one. How convenient that theologians abandon the fact/value distinction only when it serves their purposes.

    If you’ll insist on nonoverlapping magesteria to retain some faux legitimacy and sense of importance, then stay in your little bubble and leave the real questions to those poised to answer them.

    And Rex, considering I’m seeing no scientism or legal positivism anywhere here, apparently just you.

  • LouieLouie

    Mr. Anti, I take great offense at your description of me as “bilious” although last night I awoke with such brutal heartburn that I thought my throat was on fire and I had to hold my hand over my mouth to keep from spewing green bile as my head spun and looked at all four walls of my dark bedroom. I must say that for being a graduate of the Yale Divinity School you seem to have some unresolved anger that compels you to resort to petty name calling while engaged in a lively debate relating to women’s rights and choice. I think the question is, “Is your anger at God, Man or Yale” (as suggested by your nom de plume)?

  • River_Tam

    > If you want to claim theology is relevant for moral questions, be my guest. It’s not.

    > Theological voluntarism is hardly a viable philosophy, and Plato’s Euthyphro more or less made short order of the idea thousands of years ago.

    Aw, you’re so cute.

  • Standards

    If you think begging the question and talking vaguely about god’s character is a decent response, be my guest. Even Christians as Christian as Kant realized how untenable voluntarism was. It just pushes the moral question back a level further, and pretends it’s solved by god.

    And even if you want to blindly grant theology moral status. For some reason. Whatever.

    That doesn’t at all speak to why when life starts is a moral or theological, rather than a scientific, question.

    It may have theological or moral implications, sure, but it’s not a theological or moral question. With the exception of a little philosophy of biology as a framework, there’s nothing about the idea of life that can’t be captured empirically.

  • The Anti-Yale

    “God” is a word like “love”—-it is so over-used that it means nothing. I try never to use it. However I am perfectly willing to talk about the super-structures which human beings have created to attempt to harness a supreme being to their causes.

    Those super-structures are callled religions, and I have discussed the impact of twoi the world’s great religions on the abortion debate. If you are up for slogging through a lot of theological gobbledygook, you can read my paper at http://sexandabortion.blogspot.com

    As for the question “who am I angry at, Man, God or Yale” the answer is “all human folly, including my own.”

    Here we see this week another example of hubris similar to the RCC pedophile scandal. Last week it was the hubris of a Greek Prime Minister. For the last three years it has been the hubris of Wall Street and of congress. It NEVER ends.

    PK

  • LouieLouie

    True, it never does end and it’s hard to even imagine what will become of our country, actually our whole world as we know it, in the coming decades.

  • The Anti-Yale

    Just as America sold its soul to the hysteria of anti-communism and the cold war from 1950-70, we will now sell our soul to the Digital God DATA for the next 20 years until it becomes apparent that all of this obsessive analysis of any and every thing quantifiable (and some things not quantifiable) is also a false god, a graven image, if you will.

  • Standards

    I’m not contesting that religions are involved in the abortion debate. That’s vacuously true.

    The point is when life starts is not a religious or moral question. I don’t care that religions have uninformed ideas about what the answer is.

    And PK, I take you as a serious and reliable source of intellectual trends. Thanks for your steady input.

    Also I love that you say that god is overused so much so that it means nothing, then in your very next comment make vacuous references to god.

    You’re too much.

  • The Anti-Yale

    *super-structures which human beings have created to attempt to harness a supreme being to their causes*

    “Vacuous references to religion”? You apparently don’t understand my contentious relationship with YDS. This is a sarcastic reference to the machiavellian motives of those who create and burgeon “religions”. As for a “supreme being”, it’s an Aristotelian category. There isn’t an instant of data in my life which would verify the existence of anything that might fill this definition.

    Go pick on some evangelicals.

  • River_Tam

    Paul Keane may be wrong on a great number of occasions, but he’s not *stupid*.

    Standards on the other hand…

  • Standards

    PK,

    I didn’t say you were religious. You literally said of the word God in one comment “It’s so over-used that it means nothing,” then in the next rant about selling our soul to the “digital data god” in the next.

    I’ll agree with you that it means nothing.

    And aw River, I guess recognizing empirical questions as empirical questions makes you stupid? If you’d like to actually offer a reason for me to think otherwise about anything I’ve said, or a response that isn’t condescending and contentless, that might do more to convince me.

    <3

  • River_Tam

    > And aw River, I guess recognizing empirical questions as empirical questions makes you stupid?

    The definition of personhood is a moral and thus not (is-ought, and all that Humean jazz) an empirical question.

    • Standards

      Are we talking about when life starts or when personhood starts?

      Life is not a moral term, though personhood may be.

      I didn’t realize I made any claims about personhood. And I still see no reason theology has anything at all relevant to say about when life begins.

      • The Anti-Yale

        I didn’t say religion has anything relevant to say about when life begins. I said it is one of the major forces shaping the debate, whether you M. Standards, like it or not.
        http://sexandabortion.blogspot.com

        • Standards

          No one is denying that religion is involved in the debate. It’s vacuously true and uninterresting. I’ve admitted as much.

          You seemed to criticize drdebra for claiming that those who want to know when life begins should study embryology.

          I don’t know how else to interpret “you omit theology,” when the discussion is about the fact, not the debate surrounding the fact.

      • River_Tam

        No, I just assumed you weren’t busy attacking a straw man.

        • Standards

          You can have moral consideration without personhood.

          For example, I don’t think cows are people, but I think it’s best you don’t eat them. I can also see some successful utilitarian arguments for future people.

          It’s pretty narrow to only assume this debate is only about personhood. Whether or not a fetus is alive, even if it is or isn’t a person, may still be relevant.

          *shrugs*

  • The Anti-Yale

    “I didn’t say you were religious. You literally said of the word God in one comment “It’s so over-used that it means nothing,” then in the next rant about selling our soul to the “digital data god” in the next.”

    I guess you have to be part of my private little world of sixty blogs to understand: I said the Digital God DATA. It is a satire I have created to mock THE BILL AND MELINDA GRADGRIND FOUNDATION http://gradgrindfoundation.blogspot.com, also my creation.