A controversial issue raised in the Nov. 4 election was “personhood” — whether fertilized eggs should be defined as persons, with full human rights from the moment of conception. Promoters of such laws seek to outlaw women’s right to abortion and several types of contraception.
Such ballot initiatives were decisively defeated by 63 percent in Colorado and 64 percent in North Dakota. Similar initiatives were defeated in 2008 and 2010 in Colorado and in 2011 in Mississippi.
But Tennessee voters passed a personhood amendment to the state constitution by 53 percent. It will now read: “Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion” and authorizes elected officials “to enact, amend, or repeal statutes regarding abortion.” The Nov. 6 Nashville Tennessean noted that one newly elected legislator pledged to promote abortion restrictions in January.
RH Reality Check concluded that the Colorado and North Dakota initiatives “failed because their proponents weren’t secretive” about the laws’ restrictive effects, “while the extreme anti-choice ramifications of Tennessee’s new policy aren’t as immediately obvious.” (Nov. 6)
How the initiative was fought in Tennessee also had a strong bearing on its passage, noted RHRC. Women from out-of-state have one-fourth of the state’s abortions. So anti-choice forces depicted this “not as a story of desperate women doing what they need to survive, but as ‘abortion tourism.’ ” While pro-choice advocates argued that women came because needed health care was lacking in eight surrounding states, the right wing’s coded language demonized women seeking abortions from out-of-state. RHRC concluded that “long-standing narratives about gender, sin, and sexuality have the power to shift votes.”
But the repercussions of such personhood initiatives — and all anti-abortion legislation — have more serious implications for all women. “Such laws are increasingly being used as the basis for arresting women who have no intention of ending a pregnancy and for preventing women from making their own decisions about how they will give birth,” wrote Lynn M. Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, and Jeanne Flavin, sociology professor and NAPW board member, in the Nov. 8 New York Times.
For instance, a judge in Washington, D.C., in 1987, ordered a critically ill young woman who was 26 weeks pregnant to have a cesarean section, which he understood might kill her, but might save the fetus’ life. Neither survived.
In Iowa, a woman seeking help at a hospital after falling down a flight of stairs was arrested for “attempted fetal homicide.” After a woman was forced to have an cesarean she didn’t want, a court stated her rights “clearly did not outweigh the interests of the State of Florida in preserving the life of the unborn child.”
A peer-reviewed study published in 2013 by NAPW documented “413 arrests or equivalent actions depriving pregnant women of their physical liberty during the 32 years between 1973, when Roe v. Wade was decided, and 2005. … Since 2005, we have identified an additional 380 cases,” with more arrests every week. The organization attributes that to “what the Guttmacher Institute describes as a ‘seismic shift’ in the number of states” with anti-abortion laws.
Though voters in Mississippi, South Dakota and Florida defeated curbs on abortion, anti-abortion legislation will surely be raised at all government levels in 2015. That means all progressive forces must intensify the fight for reproductive justice so all women have access to abortion care and pregnant women’s right to medical privacy and bodily integrity is guaranteed. Solidarity with low-income and oppressed women is key, as their rights are the most endangered.