Personhood 2: It’s Baaaaaaaack!

By Jay Hansen

I’ve been trying to think of a slogan for this film. What do you think’s better? “This time, it’s redundant,” or “This time, it’s still unconstitutional.”

Seriously though, this is happening. State Representative Mike Reynolds submitted the exact same piece of legislation from last year. There were a few minor changes in wording and associating dates, but it is virtually identical to the Personhood bill from last year. You know, the one I wrote passionately about here and here, and wrote the Governor an extensive letter about which you can read here. That’s not to mention the federal-level personhood legislation, sponsored by the infamous Paul Ryan and his bro-mance partner Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin (just a reminder: Todd Akin is a sexist dumbass), which I wrote about here, here, here, and here.

Can you tell I feel strongly about this issue?

But this entire conversation shouldn’t even be happening. Last year the Oklahoma Supreme Court (yes, a branch of the blood-red, ultra-conservative, right-wing government of Oklahoma) unanimously ruled that Personhood legislation, this exact bill, is unconstitutional under the Oklahoma state constitution. Now Representative Reynolds is introducing it again, fully aware of this ruling from last year. In the very definition of the term, doesn’t that make Reynolds un-Oklahoman, and opposed to “Oklahoma values,” if he’s decided to just tell the state Supreme Court to fuck off and defy their ruling?

Think of the level of absurdity this creates. First of all, the average member of the Oklahoma State House is paid $38,400 a year, which breaks down to $147 for a single day of work. All of that is taxpayer money. We already know this law is unconstitutional, so how much time, and therefore, how much taxpayer money, is going to be wasted crafting, presenting, and debating this piece of legislation? Our state isn’t exactly booming with a budget surplus right now either, and with a Governor only threatening to lower revenues further I don’t see it getting better any time soon. So, naturally, what’s a Republican representative to do but to waste more taxpayer money and fiddle away precious time as Rome burns. We could be using this time, effort, and money to better our schools, get more people working, provide health care to those that need it, or a myriad of other better uses of our time. Hell, it would be a better use of time if Congress just didn’t even come in during the time they’ll be wasting on this bill, because at least that way we won’t have to pay the lawmakers for that day.

This is quickly developing into one of the Republican Party’s primary go-to moves, however. Last year, at the federal level, Congressional Republicans submitted a bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act 33 times. In doing so, they cost the US taxpayers $50 million in the same way described above, and wasted 88 hours of time deliberating and processing the legislation that didn’t go anywhere. They know that such a bill couldn’t get past the Senate, let alone Obama, as I doubt Obama would be willing to sign a bill that undoes his hallmark achievement. In the mean time, what was done to create jobs? What was done to reduce the debt? What was done to better the quality of life for Americans in the 112th Congress? Little to nothing. Republicans honestly believe their time as American lawmakers is better spent doing what is at absolute best presenting and debating entirely symbolic legislation that inevitably does nothing. It is symbolic alright; it’s symbolic of the Republican Party in today’s America; a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

No wonder the 112th Congress’ approval rating was 5%. To put that in perspective, about one-third of the country (33%) supported the British Monarchy during the Revolutionary War.

And what do Republicans do in response to these numbers? Surely, they’ll actually make good use of their time now, right? Nope; the very first piece of legislation introduced in the 113th Congress was…

wait for it… can you guess it?

Yup; another bill repealing the Affordable Care Act. 34th time’s a charm, right guys?

God I hope they’re not honestly that delusional. That means we’ve got another 32 attempts at Personhood to suffer through here in Oklahoma.

But on top of all that, think of the legislative precedent established by this move. Even if you know your bill is unconstitutional, even if you literally know it will not pass, even if it was just defeated a few months ago, just re-introduce it again, and again, and again. What kind of government do we really have if the moment an idea is defeated, we have to re-debate the idea all over again? Eventually, the government would get clogged up with so much junk that it grinds to a halt.

Of course, that may actually be what Republicans want given what we’ve seen in the past.

The very presentation of this bill is absurd, let alone the actual policies and law within it. Let me reiterate for the hundredth time; Personhood would outlaw all forms of abortion with no exceptions of rape, incest, or if the life of the mother is in jeopardy. It’s not possible for a woman to know she’s pregnant until long, long after conception, therefore an “abortion” in the sense of a medical procedure is not possible prior to conception. This bill defines life as beginning at conception, meaning the single fused cell in the woman’s body that she has no knowledge of being there is considered “alive” by US and Oklahoma law. More than that though, it could threaten many forms of the birth control pill, most of all the “Plan B” morning after pill. Female contraceptive pills often prevent a fertilized egg (i.e. after conception) from implanting in the uterus and causes a very much fertilized egg to be destroyed. Does that not, by definition of this bill, count as killing someone? Even more this bill could threaten the practice of in vitro fertilization, as it involves fertilizing eggs outside of the womb and then implanting them, with a tragically high number of implantations failing. Would this too count as murder (or at least manslaughter), since the egg and sperm are joined in a Petri dish, and action was taken by a doctor that led to the “person’s” death?

There’s one very simple way the so-called “pro-life” movement and supporters of Personhood legislation could avoid all of these side-effects of the law; just change “life begins at conception” to “life begins at successful implantation into a uterus.” Sure, it still outlaws abortion, which is unconstitutional in and of itself, but by wording it this way Personhood advocates could avoid what I can only hope were the unintended consequences of banning birth control pills and in vitro fertilization. The fact that they don’t do this, particularly given that they’re re-introducing the bill and had all the opportunity in the world to make this clarification (let alone insert abortion exceptions for rape or if the life of the mother is in danger), means they are aware of these unintended side-effects and actually want them in the bill. By re-introducing the bill without this updated language, Personhood supporters imply that this was their intention all along; banning all abortion without exception, banning the most commonly used form of birth control for women, and putting the practice of in vitro fertilization in grave danger.

I’ve had conservatives accuse me of “fear mongering” on this issue and accuse me of reading too much into the bill’s language. Some have even gone on to acknowledge that the bill does technically outlaw abortion, but claim that’s okay because it will never be enforced.

Really?!

And you call yourself a small-government conservative? By that logic, why not let the government pass a law that allows for the indefinite detention of US citizens? Or legally allow the President to order the assassination of anyone he sees fit?

Oh wait, they’ve already done that…

But the logical inconsistency is the same; people who use this defense of Personhood are saying that the government can pass any law they like, no matter how cruel or intrusive, because we can trust the government to not use the power we bestow upon them for evil; we can trust the government to not use powers given to them just because.

Keep in mind, these are conservatives making this argument. Do they have no sense of irony, or do they just not know the definition of the word conservative?

The biggest problem with this logic is that such absurd extremes of laws regarding female reproduction already exist and are vigorously enforced. In my Ultimate Pro-Choice Argument, I shared a story about how in South Carolina 300 women had already been arrested for suffering miscarriages or having stillborn babies. This was from a year and a half ago, and just this week a new report came out from the National Advocates for Pregnant Women that confirmed 413 criminal and civil cases across 44 states involving the arrests, detentions, or other deprivation of pregnant women’s liberty between 1973 and 2005, with an additional 250 confirmed in just the seven years after 2005 (indicating they’re on the rise). How might you ask? Legislation like Personhood extends “personhood” to unborn children under state law, be it by simply establishing that they are living humans as the Oklahoma law does, or specifically making it law that any fertilized egg has all the same rights and protections under the law as a fully developed human being, which is clearly ridiculous. This means, though, that if a woman does have an abortion, which is still legal under federal law (which trumps state law, obviously), state and local prosecutors can go after that woman with civil or criminal charges and treat the abortion exactly as if the woman murdered a child. Worse yet, there are some instances of laws such as those in South Carolina that even give state authorities the “right” to arrest any woman who suffers a miscarriage or has a stillborn baby, as the law puts the burden of proof on the woman. The woman that suffers the miscarriage or births an already dead baby is required by state authorities to prove she did not intentionally cause it herself. If she is unable to provide such proof, she goes to jail for manslaughter or murder.

Still don’t believe me? Here’s some concrete examples of what Personhood and other “pro-life” legislation and policies do to women’s rights. Maria Guerra from Memphis Tennessee was arrested with charges of child endangerment and driving under the influence even though her blood alcohol level was well under the legal limit simply because she was four months pregnant. This establishes two dangerous legal precedents. At four months, or possibly sooner, who’s to say the woman even knows she’s pregnant? What if a woman, completely unaware that she is pregnant, goes out and has some drinks. Could she still be arrested for child endangerment, despite not knowing? Secondly, and more seriously, if Guerra did know she was pregnant, is her freedom striped from her during her pregnancy? Obviously she shouldn’t have been drinking if she was pregnant, but her case opens the question of whether pregnant women have the same rights as all other people. Should we outlaw drinking for pregnant women? One could make the case I suppose (even though, once again, we find conservatives defending a very un-conservative principle), but where else might that lead? Pregnant women can’t consume certain substances, be in certain environments, participate in certain activity, because it endangers the unborn child, and violation of these laws will get a woman thrown in jail? Conservatives, please explain to me how such laws and policies don’t abridge a woman’s fair and equal rights and treatment under the law.

Right here in Oklahoma Jamie Lynn Russell died in jail from a ruptured ectopic pregnancy. She had gone to the hospital seeking medical treatment for severe abdominal pain only to be arrested for drug possession when police found two prescription pills on her person that were not prescribed to her. Still in pain, before getting to see a doctor, the police arrested her and brought her to the station where she screamed in pain for nearly two hours before dying. OSBI investigated and found no criminal wrongdoing on the part of the officers or jail and no legal action was taken against anyone for Russell’s death. This story may not be particularly pertaining to Personhood, but it exemplifies the culture being created around pregnancy by so-called “pro-life” legislation.

Perhaps worst of all, and most directly related to Personhood legislation, Rennie Gibbs of Mississippi birthed a stillborn baby when she was just 36 weeks along into the pregnancy. Prosecutors looked into her past and found that at one point in her life prior to the pregnancy Gibbs had used cocaine, and used that as grounds to arrest and charge Gibbs with full-blow murder, which carries a life sentence in Mississippi.

This is the danger of the Personhood movement. This is what Representative Mike Reynolds is trying to bring to Oklahoma. By endowing fertilized eggs with “personhood,” be it by extending constitutional rights to it or by simply acknowledging it as a living human, you essentially sacrifice women’s rights in its entirety and make pregnant women second-class citizens. Whether the pregnancy was intentional or not, pregnant women subjected to Personhood laws have their rights stripped of them and are subjected to sub-human treatment. For years this nation struggled with blatant Jim Crow laws and policies that existed intentionally to undo and undermine the black civil rights movement. Personhood legislation, along with many other “pro-life” laws, have become the Jim Crow of the women’s civil rights movement, creating legal precedent for oppression and abuse, and undoing their more than centuries-long fight for equality.

Go ahead and tell me there’s not a war on women. Go ahead and tell me how conservatives and “pro-lifers” are just looking to protect women’s rights. Go ahead and tell me how bills like Personhood won’t actually infringe on women’s rights, or that we should “just trust the government” not to abuse the very power you support giving them. Good luck making that case; you have fun wasting your time and taxpayer money doing so. Frankly, I’d rather spend that time trying to solve actual problems our state faces.

This is the 21st century, Republicans; get with the freaking program already.

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