Fetus Shouldn't Rob Woman Of Personhood

This opinion piece ran in the Sunday Republican on Sunday, May 02, 2004.

By Lynn M. Morgan and Monica J. Casper

Last Sunday, more than half a million supporters of reproductive choice mobilized in Washington, D.C. to draw attention to the Bush administration's ongoing assault on women's bodies. But the March for Women's Lives, sponsored by more than 1,000 organizations, was not simply abortion-rights redux. Something much more ominous is afoot: conservatives are quietly and persistently working to reclassify the fetus as a bona fide U.S. citizen.

They adopted this strategy because efforts to define fetuses as legal "persons" have failed repeatedly since the Supreme Court ruled (in Roe v. Wade) that "the word 'person' as used in the 14th Amendment, does not include the unborn." In the 1980s, then-Sen. John Ashcroft sponsored the unsuccessful Human Life Amendment, which proposed to define the "person" as beginning with conception.

Now the language of personhood has been replaced by the rhetoric of citizenship. Conservatives hope to capitalize on the successes of the civil and women's rights movements, pointing out that the Constitution did not always grant citizenship to blacks or women, either. (Who ever said that the Bush administration has no civil rights agenda?)

The new strategy would insert "fetal citizens" into the legal and regulatory apparatus.

Consider a partial list of what the Bush administration has wrought.

  • In the past six months, President Bush has signed two major pieces of anti choice legislation. The Unborn Victims of Violence Act makes the death of a pregnant woman and her zygote, embryo, or fetus in the execution of a federal crime punishable as two separate murder charges. The Partial-Birth Abortion Ban marks the first time since 1973 that the federal government has acted to criminalize an abortion procedure.
  • Determined that no fetus should be left behind, in 2002 the administration permitted states to define fetuses as "unborn children" under their Child Health Insurance Programs. This regulation, issued without Congressional debate and with minimal public input, means that some pregnant women have access to care only via their eligible fetuses.
  • Since 2001, President Bush has limited federally funded stem cell research, hampering research into potentially life-saving treatments for disease.
  • The creation of embryos remains unregulated and unquestioned, while the destruction of embryos is demonized.
  • In 2002, the Bush administration added embryos to its list of "human subjects" whose welfare should be considered by the Health and Human Services Secretary's Advisory Committee on Human Research Protections.

Taken alone, none of these initiatives pose a threat to legal abortion.

Taken together, however, they create the legal precedents that could compel a court to recognize fetuses as citizens.

From the perspective of a beleaguered administration, fetuses are ideal candidates for citizenship. Protecting the innocents makes the Bush administration appear noble and compassionate.

Fetal citizens are much easier to govern than laid-off workers, aging baby-boomers who fear the demise of Social Security, or the young people who will inherit the stratospheric national debt.

Unlike some of the survivors of 9/11, fetuses won't protest the administration's transparent efforts to manipulate their tragedy for political gain.

And unlike the "enemy combatants" detained at Guantanamo Bay, fetuses don't complain about the cramped accommodations.

Conservatives don't appear to care much about what Henry Hyde once called "post-fetuses," judging by cuts to Medicaid, public education, and other social services. Rather, they pursue a coordinated, multi-pronged campaign for fetal citizenship that extends far beyond abortion.

The zealots are in charge now, and they aim to restrict access to contraception, to oppose extramarital sex and sex education, to make public benefits contingent on marriage, and to privatize Social Security and medical care.

Their stealth campaign advances simultaneously on several fronts: a motion to appoint a fetal guardian here, a proposition to outlaw a medical procedure there, a move to rally sympathy for fetal victims of homicide elsewhere.

Its architects are acutely aware that we are but one Supreme Court justice away from overturning Roe v. Wade. Don't be surprised to awaken one day to hear that a "Fetal Protection Act" has been passed or a "Fetal Protection Agency" formed.

Meanwhile, the march on our nation's capitol was dedicated to the radical proposition that the presence of a fetus in a woman's body should not erase her fundamental personhood and rights.

Women are citizens, too, and we won't be treated as less.

Lynn M. Morgan is professor of anthropology at Mount Holyoke College and co-editor of "Fetal Subjects, Feminist Positions." Monica J. Casper is a sociologist and bioethicist, and author of The Making of the Unborn Patient: A Social Anatomy of Fetal Surgery.