What is A Person?

By Megan Shaw


Over the past few weeks, women’s reproductive and health rights in the United States have been under a magnifying glass. From anti-abortion bills being pushed through the Virginia and Oklahoma Congresses to the Susan G. Komen for the Cure organization defunding (and then refunding) Planned Parenthood to the controversy over the federal mandate for all insurance providers to cover contraceptives, women’s bodies are the subject of discussion in a manner reminiscent of the Roe v. Wade era.

Practically since the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which established that the right to privacy includes women seeking abortions and defended the legality of abortion under the Constitution, some states have taken it upon themselves to make access to abortion more difficult to attain. Such barriers include provisions like waiting periods or mandatory counseling. Some provisions create even larger obstacles.

Currently, two so-called “personhood bills” are passing through the Congresses of Virginia and Oklahoma. In Virginia, the summary as introduced to the House for HB 1 states that the bill “provides that unborn children at every stage of development enjoy all the rights, privileges, and immunities available to other persons, citizens, and residents of the Commonwealth […].” HB 1 passed the Virginia House on Feb. 14 but fortunately was put on hold in the Senate, although the Senate could return to it as soon as next year. In Oklahoma, the Senate also recently passed a similar bill, SB 1433, on the Feb. 15, which would similarly define life as beginning at conception. It is expected to pass in the House.

These “personhood” amendments give absolutely no thought to the rights of the women or female-bodied people who would actually have to carry a child to term. They do not take into account the health risks of pregnancy, the mental or emotional trauma that is associated with carrying an unwanted fetus to term, the physical pain of childbirth or the opportunity for job advancement or education. These bills do not even provide room for abortion in cases of incest, rape or situations in which a pregnant woman’s life is at risk. They essentially say that a fertilized egg is more of a person than a pregnant woman.

And for those of us who don’t live in Virginia or Oklahoma? Just this past summer, the Ohio House of Representatives voted on HB 125, otherwise known as the “heartbeat” bill, which would ban abortions after the heartbeat of a fetus could be detected — as early as six weeks after conception. Many women, especially those who have irregular menstrual cycles, may not even discover that they are pregnant by the six-week mark. But the Ohio House voted in favor and the bill may head to the Senate at any time.

The struggle for women to retain legal rights over their bodies has not ended just because Roe v. Wade is in place. The Virginia House also recently passed HB 462, a bill that would require women in Virginia to first undergo a trans-vaginal ultrasound before getting an abortion. This procedure, which like all ultrasounds is not medically necessary for most women seeking an abortion and would add to the cost of the procedure, is incredibly invasive. The National Institute of Health describes how, when a woman gets a trans-vaginal ultrasound, “A hand-held probe is inserted directly into the vagina. The probe is moved within the vaginal cavity to scan the pelvic structures, while ultrasound pictures are viewed on a monitor.” This means that every woman in the state of Virginia who wanted to get a legal abortion would be forced to undergo a medically unnecessary procedure in which she is vaginally penetrated without a choice. In fact, since the FBI recently updated it’s definition of rape to “the penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina […] with any body part or object […] without the consent of the victim,” many pro-choice advocates called this bill “state-mandated rape.”

Luckily, in response to this controversy, Virginia Governor McDonnell called for some amendments to be made. The bill would still require an ultrasound, but not specifically a trans-vaginal one. The reality, however, is that in many early-stage abortions when the fetus is still very small, a trans-vaginal ultrasound would be the only type that could detect the fetus and would still be required of many women, should this ultrasound bill pass.

While this amendment is still a small victory for pro-choice advocates, many do not realize that many of these ultrasound bills are in effect in other states. In Texas, for example, a law was just recently enacted requiring women to have a sonogram 24 hours before getting an abortion. During this procedure, the woman is required to listen to the fetus’ heartbeat aloud, and hear a description of the fetus in great detail. While it is not directly written in the law, a trans-vaginal ultrasound is generally required in order to obtain such an in-depth description.

These abortion requirements are spreading rapidly over the country for the sole purpose of dissuading women from having abortions by making them physically or emotionally uncomfortable. This is especially disconcerting given that these are largely the same people who oppose the distribution of contraceptives to all women under President Obama’s health care plan. Such rhetoric and action begs the question: what message is being sent? What does it mean when Foster Friess, one of GOP Presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s biggest donors, argues against distributing birth control by saying, “back in my days, they used Bayer aspirin for contraception. The gals put it between their knees and it wasn’t that costly”? Or when organizations like Susan G. Komen for the Cure pull funding for potentially life-saving breast cancer treatments at Planned Parenthood because of pressure from outside parties?

It means that the issue here goes beyond arguments of religious freedom or political differences. The issue is the way that women are perceived in this country and the way society allows them to be perceived. We treat women with unwanted pregnancies as children who ought to be punished. We force a woman to undergo counseling before getting an abortion, implying she cannot have possibly thought it through well enough beforehand. We do not want to provide women with birth control out of fear for encouraging promiscuity (because apparently fear of pregnancy is the only reason a woman wouldn’t have sex).

No one would ever refuse to give chemotherapy to a smoker with lung cancer, even though it is common knowledge that smoking can lead to cancer, but if a woman has an unwanted pregnancy, some people legitimately use the “she should have known better” excuse as an argument against providing abortion services.

We need to reevaluate the women are treated in this country. We need to stop viewing them as egg incubators or baby machines and start viewing them as autonomous people who deserve to make decisions about their own bodies. Because the message women receive when all-male panels or religious institutions make such decisions is that our choices and opinions don’t matter. And in a country founded on a principle of “liberty,” that is unacceptable.

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