There is a remarkable bill moving through Oklahoma’s legislature. Remarkable because it tries to take legal thinking about reproductive rights to a new low. A new low in the sense of rescinding women’s rights to sovereignty over our own bodies and lives. We cannot take reproductive freedom for granted.
Remember when anti-choice(*) advocates first began advancing language which quietly conferred legal ‘personhood’ onto zygotes and fetuses? My earliest memories of this are murder statutes in which earnest-sounding lawmakers inserted wording to convert crimes against pregnant women into crimes with two victims. Fetal homicide laws have spread across many states. Who could object to wanting to punish even harder the murderer of both a woman and her unborn child? Who could raise their voice against avenging some nasty old murderer who committed a ‘two-fer’ by taking the life of a woman as well as the life growing within her? It sounded terribly sympathetic to many listeners at the time. It also sounded terribly dangerous to many of us, like an argument that women who happen to be pregnant no longer had individual standing. These arguments have been rebutted; yet they have taken hold in some circles. Between 1973 and 2005 in America, a study by the National Advocates for Pregnant Women found 413 cases in which “law enforcement intervened in pregnant women’s lives,” including some premised on a fetus having legal personhood independent of the pregnant woman on whom it is physiologically reliant.
According to Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy, rights “dominate modern understandings of what actions are permissible and which institutions are just.” There has been a steady march to normalize the ‘personhood’ of a fetus to such an extent that some now fail to see pregnant women as individuals endowed with rights. As recently as 2012, the Oklahoma Supreme Court and legislature both recognized that fetal personhood was not constitutional. A year later, North Dakota’s legislature supported fetal personhood. Now Oklahoma wants to revisit the issue. Again.
In the current Oklahoma bill, the rights of a woman are dismissed, since the bill’s author Oklahoma State Representative (and not a physician) Justin Humphrey‘s bill considers pregnant women not persons under the law, but rather ‘hosts’ of a being whose standing supersedes that of the formed, born, female in whom they grow. Women are compelled to tell their doctor the name of their sexual partner, AND provide his written permission before she can obtain her abortion. In a bizarre twist, the named paternal sex partner can ‘contest’ his paternity by insisting on a DNA test. The logic of this addendum is hard to fathom: a woman’s own medical care is subject to a man with the power to give or withhold his written permission, who may also hold up her health care by claiming he is not in fact the man with the aforementioned power to give or withhold his permission. What? Details of the bill and its progress in the legislature were thoroughly and dispassionately explained on the radio show Here & Now when Dale Denwalt (@denwalt), capitol bureau chief for The Oklahoman, spoke with Here & Now‘s Meghna Chakrabarti on 02.17.2017. Highlights of Representative Humphrey‘s misogyny include:
“I understand that they feel like that is their body,” [Humphrey] said of women. “I feel like it is a separate — what I call them is, is you’re a ‘host.’ And you know when you enter into a relationship you’re going to be that host and so, you know, if you pre-know that then take all precautions and don’t get pregnant…. I’m like, hey, your body is your body and be responsible with it. But after you’re irresponsible then don’t claim, well, I can just go and do this with another body, when you’re the host and you invited that in.”
Anti-choice(*) activists are often (not always) opponents of comprehensive sexual education for young people, opponents of low/no cost preventative care including birth control services, and opponents of social policies such as parental and family leave, pay equity, and support measures for low-income families from food stamps to school lunches, etc. Being an authentic advocate for life means much more than opposing reproductive freedom for women.
Beware the advocate who shouts about defending the rights of the unborn. We know that restricting abortion rights does NOT reduce abortions. It increases maternal death when women are forced to seek unsafe termination procedures. Want to reduce abortions? Reduce unwanted pregnancies. And to do that, we must empower women, not strip our rights in a misguided -or worse, misleading- attempt to morph our legal standing from one person into two.
(*)Vocabulary Note: I always use the term anti-choice, since it accurately reflects the interplay between persons who fight against women’s right to choose our reproductive health care, versus persons who fight for women’s right to choose our reproductive health care. The term pro-life is a nonsense expression, since it implies there is an opposition which is anti-life. (It is especially rich when people define their misogyny as making them pro-life, and favor the death penalty… an irony to explore another day.) Similarly, no person is pro-abortion. Which is why I also reject the term anti-abortion. To maintain the integrity and logic of our work for reproductive freedom, it is important to use precise language.