Giving rights to a fetus would subtract rights from women

Recently, I made the two-and-a-half-hour drive from Wichita to the Kansas State Capitol in Topeka. I didn’t make the drive to appreciate the spring grasses growing on the rolling plains of the Flint Hills. Instead, I went to testify against a proposed amendment to the Kansas State Constitution, HCR 5004, that would grant “equal rights to all Kansans” by extending equal legal rights to embryos at the time of fertilization.

In essence, HCR 5004 is an attempt to establish the personhood of embryos and fetuses. It would create a new legal doctrine that would challenge the current definition of who is recognized as a person for the purposes of the law. While anti-abortion advocates would argue that this is how it should be, I ask that you consider how such a position would affect persons that have already been born.

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There is no way to give the rights of personhood to embryos or fetuses without infringing on the rights of the women who carry those pregnancies. There is currently no way to carry a pregnancy to term that does not require the womb of a living person. This means that women’s rights to bodily autonomy and legal personhood would be directly damaged by their potential to become pregnant by HCR 5004.

While it is likely that the 21 male members of the House of Representatives who are sponsoring this bill are only intending to score points with anti-choice extremists, this amendment would have many devastating consequences. The amendment contains no exemptions for abortions in cases of rape or incest or to save the life of the woman.

HCR 5004 would eliminate medical choices for women, and not just those about abortion. The bill would limit a woman’s ability to make decisions about: contraceptive care, like IUDs and emergency contraception; cancer treatments; organ transplants; and in vitro fertilization. It also opens up Kansas women for potential prosecution for miscarriages or other activities that potentially could harm a pregnancy.

This isn’t hyperbole. In Indiana, Bei Bei Shuai was charged with murder and child neglect after trying to commit suicide because her premature baby died. Another Indiana woman, Purvi Patel, was convicted of feticide and child neglect after she had a miscarriage that her doctors suspected she had induced. Rennie Gibbs was charged with murder in Mississippi after she suffered a stillbirth at 15 years old in 2005.

Her case was only dismissed in 2014, putting a young woman through a nine-year legal ordeal. Latrice Fisher, another woman from Mississippi, is currently being charged under the same statutes as Ms. Gibbs, because she had an unattended home birth and her baby did not survive. Her case is still ongoing. In countries with laws similar to HCR 5004 such as El Salvador and Mexico, women are regularly charged with murder and in-prisoned for years for having miscarriages.

Similar bills to HCR 5004 have been introduced in several other states over the last few years. Most seriously, last November, voters in Alabama passed a constitutional amendment establishing fetal personhood by 59 percent. While these types of laws aren’t currently able to criminalize abortion, they would ban abortion if Roe v. Wade was overturned.

They also create dangerous precedents in other legal areas. In what is clearly designed to be a test case, a man in Alabama was recently granted the right to sue an abortion clinic on behalf of what he claims was his fetus.

Madison County Probate Judge Frank Barger ruled that Ryan Magers could name the fetus as a co-plaintiff and sue the clinic and the company that manufactures an abortifacient for “wrongful death” after the young woman he claims he impregnated had an abortion. This case is a clear example of the danger posed by personhood legislation. The Washington Post reported that the young woman (she was 16 and he was 19 at the time) is opposed to the lawsuit.

An anti-choice group that supports personhood is assisting with the lawsuit. It is clear that this case was brought as an attempt to test if a court would recognize a fetus as having equal legal rights to a person who is already born. Giving fetuses or embryos the same legal rights as people who are already born is a direct attack on the right to abortion.

It also endangers the civil rights of any person what could become pregnant. There is no way to give additional rights to a fetus that do not subtract from the rights of the person who is carrying it. This was the central legal question of Roe v. Wade. It is also increasingly the anti-choice movement’s favorite tactic for denying the personhood of women.

Julie A. Burkhart is the founder and CEO of Trust Women Foundation. Trust Women opens clinics that provide abortion care in underserved communities so that all women can make their own decisions about their healthcare. Follow her on Twitter @julieburkhart.