Monday, May 28, 2012

On Bei Bei and Personhood

I've been following the personhood laws and the shameful case against Bei Bei Shuai in my own home state with interest. Disturbed interest. No one can deny that these are tragic situations. However, I forsee frightening consequences from these laws.

Biblically, there's little to no basis for fetal personhood; it's left to the husband to decide the value of an unborn child in the case of a caused miscarriage by a third party (Exodus 21:22), but the punishment is not on the same level as that of murder. Not only that, but I think you could make a strong case that life in the Bible is only truly granted with breath. The breath of life...

Genesis 2:7, NIV: "The LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being." 

Biblical interpretation aside, there are serious practical problems to such an approach. Sure, these laws  will add an extra layer of criminality to those who hurt a pregnant woman. And they may eventually be used to prosecute those who seek abortions, but beyond that, they will and are ushering in an Atwood-dystopian reality where a woman ceases to be a free agent as soon as she is impregnated. 

A pregnant woman's body, legally, will belong to the fetus, rather than the other way around. What is to stop a prosecutor from, once receiving convictions for drugs/suicide attempts, to go after women who smoke, drink, imbibe caffeine, go skiing and fall? Isn't that child endangerment? If any act or behavior could be construed as having a negative or potential negative impact on the fetus, what is to stop us from taking those women to court?

"Oh, no!" we're assured by politicians and prosecutors. "We have no intention of applying the law in circumstances like those."

The problem with such vague, broad-reaching laws, ones in which assurances like those become necessary, is that we need assurances. And assurances aren't the same as legal protections. Promises last just as long as they are politically or financially expedient. And then the assurances disappear and you have the very thing you dreaded. Just ask Christine Taylor.

Falling down the stairs is criminal behavior. Really?
During the course of my pregnancy with Baby G, I jaywalked, took unlicensed transportation, rode in a taxi without a seat belt, nearly fell out of my seat on a municipal bus hurtling down a mountainside, ate sushi, drank a little wine, and visited an area of town known for gunfights. I ate peanut butter. I exercised and lifted heavy weights. I carried my own groceries and didn't always rest as much as I should have. I also live in a polluted city, take medication for rheumatoid arthritis, ate cold cuts and almost fell in the shower once because the floor was slippery and I wanted to shave my legs. All of those things could have endangered the fetus growing inside of me. But that fetus was part of me, not the other way around. I was the decision maker. It was my body that I moved through the world and my days. Thank goodness I was doing this in Rio, not Indiana, because I might have been charged with intent to provoke listeria. Or something.

Charging pregnant women with crimes for endangering a life that does not exist yet is absurd. The baby is an abstraction as far as the government is concerned. A potential person only. He or she does not exist in any legal manner-there is no birth certificate, no Social Security number, perhaps not even a known gender. The child is not in possession of a legal name or citizenship. In short, even though baby G was kicking up a storm in my belly, for all intents and purposes, he was ME. I didn't need a passport or visa for him when we traveled to the United States for Christmas, even though I suppose according to the logic of personhood laws, he was very much a Brazilian, having been conceived there and spending most of his in-utero time in that country as well. When I went to buy a plane ticket, I didn't have to declare him as a second life for the plane's passenger manifest. The moment he took his first breath, all that changed.

I totally understand the sentiment behind personhood laws, and I sympathize. Perhaps I sound callous here, which is unfortunate, because that could not be further from the truth. I started loving Baby G from the moment we saw that blue line on the pregnancy test. But I have no desire to live in a country where personhood laws exist. I'm terrified of the consequences. The criminalization of miscarriages, for example, or the fact that every pregnant woman becomes a target for overzealous prosecution. One article summed it up well, stating that this would "create legal precedent that makes every woman criminally liable for the outcome of her pregnancy." 

"would amend the state’s chemical endangerment law, which was originally designed to deter people who run methamphetamine laboratories from bringing children to such dangerous locations.  HB 8 would define the word “child” to include “an unborn child in utero at any stage of development,” and make the law applicable to a pregnant woman who uses any amount of a “controlled substance,” prescribed or otherwise, at any point in her pregnancy, and whether or not she knew she was pregnant at the time. 
In other words, the bill would allow prosecutors to treat a pregnant woman as if she herself is an illegal drug lab."

There has to be a better way to value our unborn children than by devaluing the mother as nothing more than a vessel for fetal growth. I never did anything to intentionally harm Baby G, and I would have been devastated had something tragic occurred. But the only thing more tragic than the demise of an unborn baby is for the traumatized mother to be criminally prosecuted for a pregnancy gone wrong.

1 comment:

anne said...

well-stated> I find personhood laws really just a way to make abortion illegal again, w/o the hassle of passing something specific to abortion. Personhood sounds so much more "noble" and "reasonable" on the surface.
Would be lovely, if Indiana, and other states, would put as much effort into actually DOING something for mothers-to-be (there are programs, but the paperwork and eligibility is complicated) and young children, which would add to the health and safety of their personhood.