Georgia Republicans’ total abortion ban has been fast-tracked through the state legislature, and while advocates and opponents of the bill have offered lengthy testimony around the ban’s language, the legislation’s “personhood” language has received little attention.
Most of Georgia’s House Bill 481 focuses on redefining medical and legal viability as beginning when a fetus has “a detectable heartbeat,” usually around six weeks’ gestational age. This effectively outlaws all abortion, as many people don’t know they’re pregnant at six weeks. However, the bill slips in language that fundamentally redefines a “natural person,” to include “a member of the species Homo sapiens at any stage of development who is carried in the womb.”
“Personhood” laws seek to classify fertilized eggs, zygotes, embryos, and fetuses as people with full legal recognition and protection. The “any stage of development” language would alter Georgia law. However, it carefully avoids the question of fertilized ovum created for the purposes of in vitro fertilization (IVF), which happens in a medical setting outside of a person’s body.
Jalessah Jackson, the Georgia coordinator for SisterSong, a women of color reproductive justice collective based in Atlanta, told Rewire.News by email that the so-called fetal personhood language in anti-choice bills like HB 481 is a direct attack on the autonomy and rights of anyone who can become pregnant.
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“To be clear, the desired outcome of fetal personhood framing is to remove the pregnant person’s human and reproductive rights altogether,” Jackson said.
Quita Tinsley, deputy director at Access Reproductive Care-Southeast (ARC-Southeast), the state’s only abortion fund, said “personhood” language in anti-choice legislation “seek to ban abortion while stripping pregnant people of their rights and autonomy.”
“Personhood bills create the battle of whose rights mean more and pregnant people usually always lose that battle. This is especially true for people of color, low-income folks, and people who are incarcerated or undocumented,” they told Rewire.News by email.
One of the consequences of “personhood” amendments is the criminalization of pregnant people. Roula AbiSamra, Georgia organizer for the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF), pointed out in an email to Rewire.News that it’s people of color who end up being disproportionately affected by radical anti-choice laws that redefine what constitutes a person.
Purvi Patel was a pregnant woman allegedly pursuing a self-induced abortion, and subsequently faced charges of feticide and felony neglect of a dependent. She spent several years in prison before her lawyers were able to get her convictions vacated and her charges reduced, allowing her to be released from prison on time served.
Bei Bei Shuai was charged with feticide after she attempted to commit suicide by ingesting rat poison. Both cases drew national attention to the issue of how so-called personhood laws—and similar legal statutes—result in the criminalization of pregnant people.
“These conversations about ‘personhood’ are absurd, insulting, and dangerous when Asian American and Pacific Islander women and girls are fighting each day for basic agency over our lives, our families, and our communities,” AbiSamra said.
The sponsor of the total abortion ban—Rep. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth)—and other supporters of the bill have repeatedly made comparisons between what the bill seeks to do and what the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution ostensibly did.
The 14th Amendment originally granted full legal rights to Black people in the United States. It’s since been interpreted more broadly to grant equal rights to other classes of people, but the original, historical context had to do with the country’s institution of slavery. The “separate but equal” laws that dominated the South during the Jim Crow era proliferated under the 14th Amendment, with U.S. Supreme Court cases like Plessy v. Ferguson being among the most well known.
In a state that’s one-third Black, this comparison has garnered pushback among legislators and reproductive justice advocates. Nicole Gathany, a member of NAPAWF and the interim president of the Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity (URGE) Atlanta City Activist Network, told Rewire.News that she found these comparisons “sick” and “insulting.”
“I think it’s really popular for politicians to use the history of black folks’ struggles in this country for their own ideological goals. It’s sick. It’s really insulting. If I could speak to Setzler [the sponsor of the bill], I would say stop using my history of oppression as a political tool to take away my rights and the right of many who share my marginalized identities,” said Gathany, a Black, queer woman.
Gathany said her experience lobbying legislators at the Georgia capitol—colloquially called “going to the ropes,” as advocates stand on the opposite side of a rope line to speak with elected officials—reinforced for her the racist, sexist dynamics at play within the bill and the policymaking surrounding the bill.
“When I was at the capitol on the ropes talking to [General] Assembly members about HB 481, it felt like I was trying to convince slave owners that I am a person and not a baby incubator and that I shouldn’t be required to carry out a pregnancy every time I have sex,” she said.
Jackson of SisterSong shared that the calls for “personhood” are disingenuous at best because Georgia lawmakers “fail to address the socio-political and historical context of women’s lives that shape their material realities, and necessitate women’s reproductive freedom.”
“‘Fetal personhood’ is an illegitimate idea that redirects the debate about abortion away from an individual’s right to bodily autonomy and self-determination and onto the alleged human rights of the fetus that they are carrying,” Jackson told Rewire.News by email.
So-called personhood bills have failed in Maine, Colorado, Iowa, and in the U.S. House of Representatives. In Colorado, voters have shot down personhood amendments presented as ballot measures. At least a dozen states are considering bills that include “personhood” language.
The measure is opposed by local and national reproductive justice groups like ARC-Southeast, Feminist Women’s Health Center, NAPAWF, NARAL Pro-Choice America, Planned Parenthood, SisterLove, SisterSong, and URGE.
“Pregnant people deserve to be treated with compassion and love no matter whether they decide to continue a pregnancy or not,” Tinsley of ARC-Southeast told Rewire.News. “They should have access to care, accurate information, and all the resources they need. But personhood bills, like HB 481, don’t do this; instead, they strip pregnant people of their autonomy, dignity, and humanity.”
Medical groups have also come out in opposition to the GOP’s total abortion ban. Most recently, the Medical Association of Georgia added its voice to the opposition. Groups like Georgia Reproductive Endocrinologists, the Georgia OB-GYN Society, as well as clinicians and researchers have all been active in opposing the bill since its first hearing in the state house.
The Georgia bill has largely been advanced along party-line votes. In the state house, the measure received the support of one Democrat: Rep. Mack Jackson (D-Sandersville), a pastor who represents a district in Middle Georgia. Several Republican members of the house walked or did not vote on the measure, while Rep. Deborah Silcox (R-Sandy Springs) crossed party lines to vote against the total abortion ban.
In a state senate hearing on Monday morning, a committee substitute passed along both party and gender lines by a 3-2 vote. As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan told a group of reporters the previous week that he added an additional member to the committee mid-session to ensure the total abortion ban would pass. It is expected to go to the state senate floor on Friday for a vote.