Redefining When Life Begins: A Post about Personhood USA and Legislative Bills That Could Make the Use of Some Contraceptives Illegal

Submitted by Elaine Magliaro, Guest Blogger

Until last week, I had never heard of an organization called Personhood USA. Then I read a post about it on Think Progress titled Anti-Abortion Groups Push To Outlaw Contraceptives By Redefining Personhood. According to the Think Progress piece, Personhood USA has been quite successful at pushing legislation in a number of states that would “redefine life as beginning at the moment of fertilization…”

Dr. Dan Grossman, an obstetrician/gynecologist at the University of California, San Francisco, said that the medical community has been in agreement that a pregnancy begins “once implantation occurs.” Only about a half of fertilized eggs, however, actually implant into a woman’s uterus and result in a pregnancy. The rest of the fertilized eggs never begin dividing, never implant, or spontaneously abort. In fact, some spontaneous abortions occur so early in a woman’s pregnancy that she may not even be aware that she is pregnant.

 What has been the cause of great concern to some individuals and organizations—including NOW, ACLU, and Planned Parenthood—is that a growing number of lawmakers support the organization’s efforts to “legally define life as the moment a sperm meets an egg.”

Dr. Grossman, who also works for the reproductive rights group Ibis Reproductive Health, says that if Personhood USA achieves its goal, “it could threaten the use of a long list of commonly used contraceptives, including some birth control pills and the intrauterine device.” He added, “This redefinition really could end up reclassifying all of these effective and safe birth control methods as abortifacients, or agents that induce abortions.”

Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, an attorney with the ACLU, claims that the personhood backers’ intention is the banning of some of the most commonly used forms of birth control—along with banning abortion.

Keith Mason, president of Personhood USA, says that while “he doesn’t think his proposals would interfere with most forms of birth control, he doesn’t deny that some could.” He continued, “Certainly women, my wife included, would want to know if the pills they’re taking would kill a unique human individual. And I think there’s a lot of misinformation about that, or lack of information. And I think this is another benefit of what we’re doing: We’re raising awareness about these issues.”

Kolbi-Molinas says that there could be dire consequences if fertilized eggs are declared to be persons—and if women are legally separated from their pregnancies. The ACLU lawyer provided the example of ectopic pregnancies which implant outside a uterus and can be life-threatening for a woman. She said, “And so it is essential an ectopic pregnancy be terminated as soon as possible. But by giving all fertilized eggs legal rights under the law, that calls into question what kind of methods a doctor can actually use to save a woman’s life in a situation like this.”

 According to Marie Diamond of Think Progress, if “personhood” laws are passed, they “could turn common forms of birth control into the legal equivalent of a homicide.” She claims that legislation supported by anti-abortion groups like Personhood USA is an attempt “to assert government control over women’s bodies.”

Diamond continued: “Contraceptives like the pill and IUDs not only act to prevent fertilization, but, if fertilization does occur, may prevent that fertilized egg from implanting in a woman’s uterus. Personhood USA considers this tantamount to abortion, and wants to make it a punishable offense for women to control their own fertility. Worse, because the proposed legislation could make any effort to terminate a pregnancy a criminal act, it could also bar doctors from saving the lives of women with ectopic pregnancies…”

According to Right Wing Watch: “Personhood legislation gives legal rights to zygotes, banning all abortion without exception along with procedures to treat problem pregnancies, certain forms of contraception, and even in-vitro fertilization.”

Personhood amendments were defeated in Colorado in 2008 and 2010. Recently, a Louisiana “personhood” bill was defeated by the State Legislature. Still, Personhood USA claims that bills the organization has introduced are gaining traction across the United States.

A Closing Note: Keith Mason, president of Personhood USA, has been quoted as saying the following: “I think it’s important to note with the term fertilized egg, that’s the same thing as using the N word for an African American. Because it’s a dehumanizing term and it’s not based in science. The term would be a zygote, or an embryo, speaking of a unique individual.”


Anti-Abortion Groups Push To Outlaw Contraceptives By Redefining Personhood (Think Progress)

Abortion Foes Push To Redefine Personhood (NPR)

Personhood Amendment Would Ban In-Vitro Fertilization, Physicians, Families Speak Out (RH Reality Check)

Personhood Bill Flounders In Louisiana (Right Wing Watch)

Mississippi Supreme Court hears arguments regarding personhood amendment (Ballot News)

Pro-choice forces seek to prevent referendum: Mississippi slated to vote on ‘personhood’ (Washington Times)

‘Personhood’ amendment before Mississippi court (Hattiesburg American)

 Slowly but surely, American women are losing the right to choose (The Reid Report)

Amendment 62 Debate: Term ‘Fertilized Egg’ Compared To The N-Word (KRDO)

Personhood USA

54 thoughts on “Redefining When Life Begins: A Post about Personhood USA and Legislative Bills That Could Make the Use of Some Contraceptives Illegal”

  1. In the right wing’s ongoing War On Women,:

    Amanda Kimbrough is one of the women who have been ensnared as a result of the law being applied in a wholly different way. During her pregnancy her foetus was diagnosed with possible Down’s syndrome and doctors suggested she consider a termination, which Kimbrough declined as she is not in favour of abortion.

    The baby was delivered by caesarean section prematurely in April 2008 and died 19 minutes after birth.

    Six months later Kimbrough was arrested at home and charged with “chemical endangerment” of her unborn child on the grounds that she had taken drugs during the pregnancy – a claim she has denied.


    Excellent rant by French blogger LaFeminista on Daily Kos:;-They-Can-All-Go-To-Fing-Hell?detail=hide

    Just when you think it cannot get worse, it does.

  2. Sam Harris, in his “Letter to a Christian Nation” points out that nature is, statistically, the most profligate abortionist of all, with many pregnancies ending before the woman has any idea she is pregnant. So much for Mother Nature’s view of the sanctity of life.

    Abortion and all other matters of sexuality and procreation — including marriage — are d intensely personal matters and should never be subject to the oversight of state or federal government; most certainly never subject to the whims of a public vote.
    That the moral and intellectual dwarfs who comprise PersonhoodUSA have (however unintentionally) crafted legislation the final outcome of which could ensure the protection of malignant tumors would be worthy of Dorothy Parker at her most twisted were it not for the mountains of devastatingly un-funny implications it holds.

    My God, this is swiftly becoming a country uninhabitable by people with an IQ over 75.

  3. @Elaine: Apparently so. I think the fact that you can have it removed is proof of its “organism” status; it has a well-defined boundary that can be isolated and excised.

    Shame on us! Operable tumors are a natural occurrence that should be seen as a gift from God! Who are we to say we don’t want them? That tumor is a human being that just wants to live, for Christ’s sake! And if it endangers your life, well you should have thought of that before irresponsibly putting yourself in the path of a cosmic ray that demethylated the wrong purine ring in your DNA, now, shouldn’t you? (For those that must be told, this paragraph is all sarcasm and satire).

  4. Tony C.,

    So…legally speaking…if I lived in North Dakota and had a cancerous tumor removed from my body, I could be charged with homicide.

    Makes sense to me!


  5. Ha! Let me point out in the North Dakota law that “any organism with the genome of homo sapiens” includes cancerous tumors of the lungs, brain, and other organs. A tumor is an organism. Like a zygote, it does not have a brain, and like a zygote, it has no independent heart, respiration or digestion, it cannot live without its host: But it is an organism nonetheless, and its genome is 100% human.

  6. PersonhoodUSA’s Radical, Fetal-Separatist Agenda
    by Lynn Paltrow, National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW)
    October 25, 2010

    Next week, people in Colorado will be voting on Amendment 62, a ballot measure sponsored by PersonhoodUSA. This organization seeks to establish the “pre-born,” including eggs, embryos and fetuses as separate “legal persons with protection under the law.”

    This organization claims that its goal is to end the “injustice of abortion.” In fact they are promoting a Fetal Separatist movement, one that is trying to legally separate pregnant women and the fertilized eggs, embryos and fetuses inside of them. Their efforts are dangerous to all pregnant women including those who go to term, those who expect confidential medical care, and those who want to preserve their right to life and liberty.

    The argument that eggs and fetuses may be treated as if they are legally independent of the women who carry them has been used to deprive pregnant women of their status as full constitutional persons. Angela Carder was forced to have cesarean surgery to advance the rights of the fetus inside of her. Shortly after the surgery both the baby and Ms. Carder died. Ms. Carder was deprived of her right to life. Recently, a pregnant woman was kept prisoner in a Florida hospital because doctors believed that doing so would advance the rights and health of the fetus. She nevertheless suffered a stillbirth. Ms. Burton was deprived of her right to liberty. Although courts in both cases eventually held that these deprivations of life and liberty were wrong, adopting fetal separatist measures would allow outsiders to take similar actions whenever they disagreed with the pregnant woman.

    In New Jersey, V.M. refused to pre-authorize cesarean surgery. Although she had a successful vaginal birth, New Jersey hospital workers reported her to child welfare authorities for medical neglect of her unborn child. This report led to the removal of the newborn from her parent’s custody. As a result, V.M. her husband and her child have been deprived of their fundamental liberty interests in family life.

    When doctors at a hospital learned that Laura Pemeberton was attempting to have a home birth, fetal separatist arguments became the basis for sending a sheriff to her home. She was taken into custody, forcibly restrained while in active labor, judged without representation and forced to undergo cesarean surgery, depriving her of her right to liberty, privacy, bodily integrity, medical decision-making and due process of law.

    When CT in Iowa was five months pregnant and fell down a flight of stairs, she assumed that she had a right to privacy in her medical information. Hospital staff, however, reported her to the police and she was arrested – deprived of her liberty – for the made up crime of “attempted fetal homicide.”

    Fetal separatists analogize fertilized eggs, embryos and fetuses to African-American slaves who were once “denied their humanity” and “stripped [of] their personhood.” They suggest that their goal is simply continuing an American tradition of expanding membership in the population of Constitutional persons. But, in fact, fetal separatism, in the guise of adding one group to the Constitutional population will do something unprecedented in US history: subtract another.

  7. How PersonhoodUSA Will Hurt All Pregnant Women
    by Lynn Paltrow
    Huffington Post
    March 24, 2009

    PersonhoodUSA apparently sees itself as the new, hipper, more effective incarnation of the anti-abortion movement. PersonhoodUSA hopes that by establishing the “pre-born, as legal persons with protection under the law” it will end the “injustice of abortion.” Its attempt to do this last November through a “personhood” ballot measure in Colorado’s failed miserably. Nevertheless, PersonhoodUSA, is committed to “working tirelessly to establish personhood in every State.”

    What supporters of this approach don’t mention is that if the unborn have legal personhood rights, pregnant women won’t. There is really no way around this. As National Advocates for Pregnant Women’s video demonstrates, if successful, this strategy will mean that upon become pregnant, women will lose their civil and human rights.

    As Angela Carder learned it is not just life vs. choice – but life vs. life. Angela Carder, 25 weeks pregnant, was critically ill. More than anything, she wanted to live. A court, however, ordered cesarean surgery based on claims of fetal rights. The surgery was performed over her objections as well as those of her physicians and family. Angela Carder died two days later – the cesarean surgery listed as a contributing factor. The fetus was born alive but died within two hours.

    PersonhoodUSA doesn’t address how personhood laws will affect women like Ms. Carder and others who have no intention of ending a pregnancy. Perhaps this is why legislators in at least five states have introduced bills that carry their message and several more are working on ballot measures like the one in Colorado.

    In fact, North Dakota’s house recently passed a personhood bill that would require the state to interpret all of the state’s laws to apply to “any organism with the genome of homo sapiens” including a fertilized egg. In addition to inviting such facetious Onion-like headlines as “North Dakota House Passes ‘Homo’ Rights Law, this bill creates the basis for policing all pregnant women.

    Upon becoming pregnant, women would lose their right to medical privacy, since under North Dakota law doctors are required to report to child welfare authorities whenever they have reasonable cause to suspect that a child (an organism) is abused or neglected. Accordingly, if this bill passes, pregnant women in North Dakota who are obese, have diabetes, or smoke should probably report directly to child welfare authorities – or perhaps some new agency, such as the Department of Organism Protection.

    Indeed, a recent horrifying incident in California could become commonplace in North Dakota. A pregnant woman in California experienced a miscarriage at one-month gestation. Her doctor advised her to preserve the embryonic tissue in the freezer until she and her husband decided whether to request genetic testing or to take the remains to a mortuary. When they decided against testing, they called a mortuary. They were asked for a death certificate and were directed to the County Coroner to obtain one. The Coroner instructed them to call the police. When they complied, the police heard the words “human remains” and responded by descending on their home, entering without a warrant, and searching for what they assumed was the evidence of a crime against a person.

  8. Although personhood amendments were defeated in Colorado in 2008 and 2010, I think the following 2009 article in The Colorado Independent raises some important points about the rights of pregnant women and other concerns related to the legislative initiatives of Personhood USA.


    Anti-Choice “Egg-as-Person” Initiatives Threaten the Rights Of Women
    by Joseph Boven, Colorado Independent
    November 12, 2009

    Sponsored by pro-life activist organization Personhood USA as part of a national campaign, ballot initiative 25 would amend the state constitution in more than 20,000 places, granting even the cells of a fertilized egg full legal rights while working to effectively limit the rights of pregnant women. Legal experts say the law would lead to outlandish and oppressive applications.

    “Constitutional jurisprudence is all about weighing interests,” former Planned Parenthood attorney Kevin C. Paul of Heizer Paul LLP told The Colorado Independent. “If you’re creating a new interest, one that hadn’t existed previously, then that interest is going to have to be weighed against [those of] anybody else. And if you take the position that an unborn fetus is to be legally treated just the same as a woman, then those two interests clash.”

    Should the personhood initiative pass, he said, it’s clear women could be held by the state to ensure the safety of a fetus.

    Mark Silverstein, legal director in Colorado of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the law would apply to women unaware they’re pregnant.

    “Let’s say a woman is sexually active and she has a drink. If a drink is determined to harm a potential human life, well wouldn’t it be considered reckless endangerment to have that drink — or to engage in some other type of activity that would pose a risk to a fetus?”

    Erik Maulbetsch, also with the ACLU in Colorado, wrote in an email that although the way fetal abuse and women’s rights issues interact are certainly a concern, in his eyes, the immediate threat of “outlawing hormonal birth control, in vitro fertilization and stem cell research, are the most dangerous and intrusive aspects of the proposal.”

    Silverstein said the ACLU would actively campaign against Initiative 25, the “son of 48,” referring to the failed Initiative 48, last year’s version of the Colorado Personhood initiative.


    Losing one’s personhood

    “We know, based on hundreds of cases across the country, some of them in Colorado, that if, as a matter of law fetuses are described as separate persons, essentially pregnant women lose their Personhood,” Paltrow said.

    The ACLU’s Silverstein said that although it would take numerous court cases to determine specifically how personhood would affect Colorado law, the effect of providing an unborn child personhood rights would unquestionably restrict the civil rights of women.

    But Personhood Colorado director and the initiative proponent Gualberto Garcia Jones said the law is designed not to infringe rights but to extend them. Initiative 25 is slightly updated to be more inclusive than last year’s Initiative 48. We’ve changed “the initial marker for the beginning of life from fertilization to the beginning of the biological development of a human being,” he said.

    “It’s intended to account for human beings who may be created through asexual reproduction in laboratories and used as raw material for research, organs, or stem cells. Fertilization would not have properly applied to asexually reproduced humans, but even asexually reproduced human beings have a definite biological beginning.”

    It’s not that simple, said Silverstein. Presently, Colorado Code defines homicide, for example, as “the killing of a person by another.” The code also says that a person is someone who has been born and is alive at the time of the homicidal act. “If personhood applies to the criminal code, then you have homicide involving persons who have not even been born — to persons who might be a single cell,” Silverstein said.

    Paltrow said that all it would take is one child welfare worker, one doctor, one individual to decide that a woman is endangering the life of her unborn child and she could be arrested and taken away.



    The South Carolina Courts in 1997 ruled that fetuses that can survive outside the womb are persons under child abuse rules. As a result, 90 women have been arrested there, including Clyburn.

    These cases aren’t theoretical.

    Paltrow described the experience of Angela Carter, who was undergoing treatment for severe cancer. Carter was forced by doctors concerned with the health of the fetus to have a cesarean section. Both Carter and the fetus died. The C-section was listed as one of the causes for the mother’s death . Although the courts found that the hospital acted outside of its legal rights at the time, Paltrow said the personhood amendment would make such actions common place.

    “Once you have defined a fetus as a separate person from the mother, the state has the power to literally take custody of a pregnant woman from the moment she conceives.”

    Jonathan Van Blerkom, a University of Colorado at Boulder professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology, agreed that zygotes in fertility clinics would be protected. He said not only researchers involved in embryonic stem cell research but also individuals looking to participate in in-vitro fertilization programs would be affected.

    “We are talking about embryos in the one cell stage … What happens when a liquid nitrogen tank, which keeps embryos frozen in storage, is damaged? It happened during an earthquake in California. Concrete fell on a tank and all of the embryos were destroyed. Is there criminal liability there?”

  9. Personhood USA focuses legislative efforts on handful of states
    Mississippi, North Dakota, Iowa, Montana and Nebraska are main targets
    By Sofia Resnick | 03.02.11
    The American Independent

    Though Personhood USA has a reach into every state –- and has collected almost 1 million signatures supporting personhood legislation throughout the country — the umbrella organization and its affiliates are currently throwing the most effort at Mississippi, North Dakota, Iowa, Montana and Nebraska.


    In Mississippi:
    Amendment 26, as drafted by Personhood, reads: “The term ‘person’ or ‘persons’ shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.” However, the organization is quick to note that it does not condone cloning.


    Jennifer Mason, communications director for Personhood USA, told The American Independent every affiliate has lawyers that help draft legislation that is then presented to state leaders. But it’s a tricky business.

    “Legally speaking you can mess it up,” Mason said. “We try not to leave any children out, not to dehumanize any human being.”

    She explained that Personhood is against legislation that gives provisions for women who have been raped, victims of incest or who might be endangered by carrying a baby to term.

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