Commentary Abortion

Think the ‘Personhood’ Issue Is Over? Think Again

Kathleen Turner

As a new report from People For the American Way Foundation explores, the groups supporting "personhood" are moving as swiftly as ever toward their goal of ending any and all abortions in the United States.

Last year, Colorado voters defeated by a 2-1 margin a “personhood” amendment that aimed to outlaw all abortions and many forms of birth control. A similar bill in deep-red North Dakota also went down in flames at the ballot box. So that means that abortion rights are safe in America, right?

Sadly, no.

Any sigh of relief after 2014 “personhood” measures failed so spectacularly was premature. State legislatures just kept on passing laws that heavily restrict abortion access, disproportionately impacting low-income women. This eliminates the right to choose not by fiat—which is barred by the Supreme Court—but by red tape.

As a new report from People For the American Way Foundation explores, the groups supporting personhood are moving as swiftly as ever toward their goal of ending any and all abortions in the United States—and the really important, although counter intuitive, point to understand is that their ballot box losses actually help to advance that goal.

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First, some terminology: “Personhood” groups support granting the full rights of “persons” to all fertilized eggs and fetuses. That means that destroying a fertilized egg or ending a pregnancy at any stage, for any reason, could be considered murder.

So, no abortion. No emergency contraception. No in-vitro fertilization. Maybe even no hormonal birth control. And don’t even ask about exceptions for women who have been raped or whose health is endangered. Those women, too, could be considered murderers for terminating a pregnancy.

The “personhood” movement is extraordinarily divisive, even among the anti-choice movement. Many anti-choice groups consider “personhood” advocates to be extreme—not because they want to ban all abortion, but because they have an abrasive, take-no-prisoners strategy for getting there. Meanwhile, “personhood” advocates see the “incrementalists” as sellouts who will never reach the ultimate goal of eliminating legal abortion.

Large and well-connected groups like the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) and Americans United for Life (AUL) also want to end legal abortion, but they want to go about it in a different way. They believe that they can be more successful by slowly chipping away at abortion access while simultaneously chipping away at legal protections for reproductive choice.

These anti-choice groups call it a win when they enact legislation like 20-week abortion bans or TRAP laws (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) that can include rules about, for example, the size of janitors’ closets in a family planning clinic.

The two warring sides of the anti-choice movement are helping each other get what they both want. The unabashed extremism of “personhood” helps make the larger anti-choice movement seem more “moderate,” providing cover for more incremental abortion restrictions that make it much harder for women to access abortion. And when those measures pass, “personhood” advocates get closer to their goal: Without access to safe and legal abortion, a woman’s right to choose is essentially meaningless.

Make no mistake about it: Anti-choice groups of all stripes are doing all they can to end abortion rights in our country.

TRAP laws and similar recent anti-choice measures have already created drastic inequality by eliminating abortion access for far too many—especially low-income women. One quarter of abortion clinics across the country closed between 2009 and 2014.

For example, a woman living in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley would face a drive of hundreds of miles to the nearest abortion clinic. Oh, and don’t forget that she may need to pay for child care while she’s traveling—about 70 percent of Texas women in the Valley seeking to terminate pregnancies have at least one child, according to clinic providers.

It’s not just Texas. Thanks to TRAP laws in Ohio, anti-choice activists are, as the Guardian reported, “picking off clinics one by one, with almost no interference from the local courts.” A ridiculous law in Mississippi could close down the last abortion clinic in the state if the Supreme Court upholds its constitutionality. Already in many states, geography, income, and other factors have rendered legal abortion obsolete. It’s as simple—and fundamentally wrong—as that.

As we approach 2016, we can’t downplay the attempts to push “personhood” measures. The anti-choice movement is on the road to ending access to legal abortion. They’re just divided on how to do it.

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