Tax "reform” is on the front burner in Washington this holiday season and, as many knowledgeable observers and economic experts have explained, there are many reasons for average Americans to be concerned about the competing GOP plans.
Not only are both the House and Senate proposals a boon to the wealthy and built on the backs of lower and middle-income tax payers, they also include new efforts to undermine and destabilize the Affordable Care Act, which has the potential to drive people already struggling to get affordable health care further into financial instability and/or poverty.
Sadly, however, these high profile matters are far from the full story. Tucked into the tax reform plan is another pet issue of conservative lawmakers and special interest groups – a few sentences that attempt to establish in federal law that a fetus has all the same rights as an actual person (and perhaps even more rights than the pregnant person who carries it).
The provision in question says that expectant parents can establish a "529” college savings plan for "an unborn child”, which is defined as "a member of the species homo sapiens, at any stage of development, who is carried in the womb.” Since expectant parents can already create this plan in their name and transfer it to the child once born, this provision is clearly another attempt to confer "personhood” on fetuses, thus boosting efforts to undermine the right to an abortion.
Attempts to establish personhood for fetuses are nothing new, of course. Multiple efforts at both the national and state levels have been attempted (and failed), even in conservative states like Mississippi.
Understandably, when it comes down to it, seven in 10 Americans support access to safe and legal abortion. Many Americans also understand that once the nation recognizes "personhood” of a fertilized egg, embryo or fetus, abortion will not be the only reproductive health option that is impacted. For instance, what about contraception that may prevent a fertilized egg from attaching to the uterus? Or some types of assisted reproductive technologies that create and implant embryos into a uterus?
And what will be the impacts of a "personhood” law on people carrying a pregnancy to term? Will it be considered child neglect if a woman misses prenatal appointments? Or what if she falls down the steps while pregnant – could she be reported to law enforcement for potential child abuse or fetal homicide? (A similar situation actually happened to an Iowa woman in 2010).
We already have existing federal and state "unborn victims of violence” acts that purport to be doing something to address the domestic violence so prevalent in our society, but that are instead frequently used as a way to punish pregnant women, particularly if they are poor, or women of color. Indeed, there have been hundreds of documented cases of pregnant women being charged under current laws that have nothing to do with "personhood” (see the 2013 study here).
"Child neglect” and "child endangerment” laws have been used by zealous prosecutors to bring charges against women for poor birth outcomes (including miscarriage and stillbirth); or as justification to deprive the pregnant person of her own rights (such as forcing a C-section that was not consented to). In a society that already is criminalizing pregnancy actions and outcomes in marginalized women, it’s no stretch to believe that this criminalization would likely increase with "personhood” laws on the books.
Some in the anti-abortion movement claim that they don’t want to send women to prison. And some of them may not. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.
Claims that women seeking abortion weren’t punished prior to its legalization (something not entirely true) don’t mean much 45 years into an active and concerted anti-abortion movement. While abortion was illegal then, it wasn’t because the fetus or embryo was considered a person in the eyes of the law. Personhood laws would change this situation.
Indeed, there’s every reason to believe that women could face severe criminal punishments. We have a president who said during the 2016 campaign debates that women should be punished for obtaining abortions. More importantly than the rhetoric, however, is that there have been arrests and even convictions of women who have attempted to self-induce an abortion in the past ten years. The belief that fetuses have personhood led an Indiana woman to be arrested and charged with murder in 2012 after a failed suicide attempt that ended her pregnancy.
For the past 45 years, anti-abortion crusaders have relentlessly attacked and labeled women seeking abortions, and those who support them, as lying, deceitful, selfish murderers. Given this backdrop, one can easily imagine the fate that might await women who sought abortions in a world in which the procedure was re-criminalized. We can imagine this because for some women – women of color, immigrant women, poor women, victims of abuse – their pregnancy outcomes are already being heavily policed and criminalized.
The bottom line: If stealth efforts of the kind contained in the GOP tax plan become part of federal law, pregnancy will likely be even further policed and the U.S. government will actively abet and promote the noxious belief that women are secondary beings, only as valuable as their reproductive capabilities. This is the dangerous road that establishing "personhood” would take us down.