Portrait By Kiva Bay

Dax Murray

Book reviews, coding thoughts, feminist rants, and occasional cats.

On Personhood, in light of the VA Attorney General Nominee


[]()Biology

A healthy person with a uterus generally has a 28 day fertility cycle. Day one of the cycle is generally counted as the first day that person menstruates, or releases tissue and blood that had collected on the uterine wall. The length of the menstrual period has little to no bearing on the actual fluctuation of hormones and the length of the cycle. Generally, 14 days later one of the ovaries will release an egg, even if your period lasts 10 days, or two. The egg hangs out for about a day, before “dying” and collecting with other blood and tissue in the uterus, and then eventually being released with the period another 14 days later. If there are any sperm hanging out in the fallopian tubes, it may fertilize the egg, and create a zygote. If this happens, the zygote will then take about 5 days to make its way to the uterine, where, if conditions are right, it has about a 60% chance of implanting, and a pregnancy will start. Generally speaking, sperm may take a few days to make there way to the fallopian tubes, and can generally hang out there for about 5 days. So, your period can start on June 1st. You have sex on June 9th. The sperm make their way to your fallopian tubes, and hang out, where on June 14th, you ovulate. If we’re using averages, on June 19th it will implant and you are pregnant.

But people have different cycle lengths, and even the most regular of people may have rogue cycles because they are stressed, or haven’t been eating or eating too much or aren’t sleeping, or any host of reasons can cause a person to not have a regular cycle, with regularity. It is also impossible to tell when exactly a pregnancy started with any certainty. What do we know with certainty? The first day of a persons last menstrual period. So when trying to determine how far into a pregnancy a person might be, many health professionals use the first day of the last normal period. So if our above described person missed a period on June 28th, and it is now July 5th, a week later, she would be at 5 weeks gestation, even though the pregnancy might have started on June 19th.

[]()History

In colonial America, abortion was widespread and easily accessible. It was advertised in news papers as “unblocking menses” and could be performed by a midwife, apothecary, or physician. According to the National Abortion Federation;

Abortion has been performed for thousands of years, and in every society that has been studied. It was legal in the United States from the time the earliest settlers arrived. At the time the Constitution was adopted, abortions before “quickening” were openly advertised and commonly performed.

Quickening is when a person who is pregnant first feels movement in the uterus, usually around 20 to 24 weeks gestation (that is since last normal menstrual period). The reason it was not performed after that was for safety purposes, not due to a concern for fetal life or a bestowing of rights upon a fetus.

Katha Pollitt puts it this way:

UNTIL the last third of the nineteenth century, when it was criminalized state by state across the land, abortion was legal before “quickening” (approximately the fourth month of pregnancy). Colonial home medical guides gave recipes for “bringing on the menses” with herbs that could be grown in one’s garden or easily found in the woods. By the mid eighteenth century commercial preparations were so widely available that they had inspired their own euphemism (“taking the trade”).

Like most surgical and medical procedures done before anti-biotics, sterilization, and a comprehensive knowledge of the human body, it could be risky. Also, just as today there are fake viagra pills available on the internet, the then-contemporary version of the internet – news paper advertisements, often advertised fake remedies and pills that were often fatal. As the National Abortion Federation puts it;

During the 1800s, all surgical procedures, including abortion, were extremely risky. Hospitals were not common, antiseptics were unknown, and even the most respected doctors had only primitive medical educations. Without today’s current technology, maternal and infant mortality rates during childbirth were extraordinarily high. The dangers from abortion were similar to the dangers from other surgeries that were not outlawed.

The first regulations of abortion in the 1820’s and 1830’s were not to restrict access to abortion, but were rather poison control laws, and the sale of abortion drugs were banned, but not the procedure itself.

This did not stop abortions; the most famous practition of abortion, Madam Restell, operated practices in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, as well as having a travelling sales show where she advertised “Female Monthly Pills.”

The actual criminalization of the abortion procedure came about by the American Medical Association; again, not for any concern of fetal life. Rather, it was a power grab. The (all-male, all white) AMA wanted to solidify their spot as the premiere health care providers, demonizing and stigmatizing fields dominated by people of color and women, such as midwifery.

The anti-abortion crusade of the AMA found allies in nativist moves, anti-Catholic groups, and social conservatives. Nativists saw a threat in the immigrants who came to the country and had more children then the Protestant women (the largest segment procuring abortion services at the time). Many of these immigrants were from Catholic countries (Ireland, Italy, Poland, for example) and saw their large families as a threats. The anti-abortion groups wanted to coerce and force more Protestant women into reproducing, and this sentiment is exemplified by Horatio R Stoerer, an anti-abortion physician, who said “This is the question our (sic: white Protestant) women must answer; upon their loins depends the future destiny of the nation.”

Regardless, many doctors continued providing abortions for their patients. Rough estimates place the number around 2 million abortions a year, which is much higher than todays abortion rate. Unless a woman at the time died from the procedure, many doctors were never arrested. Those who did not perform the procedure candidly gave referrals to those who did, and in one undercover expose, the Chicago Medical Society head gave out a referral to a journalist. Midwives, the group the AMA hoped to demonize out of business, continued to provide them largely unnoticed and unhindered.

Abortion was banned to give physicians legitimacy, to give politicians political gains and victories with certain nativist populations, and, finally, it gave a coercive message from social conservatives to women: stay in your place. It was used to humilate women who were found out, to send a message that if you had an abortion, you were punished for eschewing your gender roles. Women who had abortion complications, or even miscarriage complications, were denied life-saving medical treatment until they “confessed” to having an abortion. They were coerced to make “dying declarations” implicating the doctor, the male involved in the pregnancy. As Pollit puts it:

because the words of the dying are legally admissible in court, women on their deathbeds were informed by police or doctors of their imminent demise and harassed until they admitted to their abortions and named the people connected with them — including, if the woman was unwed, the man responsible for the pregnancy, who could be arrested and even sent to prison.

This is how abortion operated for decades; Pollit continues

This state of affairs — widespread availability punctuated by law-enforcement crackdowns, popular-press scandals, and fitful attempts at medical self-policing — persisted for decades. Unsurprisingly, the Depression, during which women stood to lose their jobs if they married or had a child, saw a big surge in the abortion rate

It was around the 1940’s that the horror stories of “pre-Roe” started to surface. Suddenly law and medicine combined forces to drive the businesses further underground or out of business. Networks that had been built up, referrals, clinics, were disrupted. This is when “abortion wards” or “septic tanks” became common place, those images of women dying of sepsis in the hospital after fatal, illegal, and clandestine abortions done by an inexperience doctor or knitting needs. Of course, wealthy women could convince a reputable doctor to allow her a “therapeautic abortion” legally, travel to a doctor who would, and find someway to obtain one safely, if not legally. It was often the poor women, early on, who died. But by the 1950’s, doctors who could safely perform the procedure stopped for fear of prosecution, and even in life threatening conditions, doctors were fearful of being prosecuted for performing an abortion when a woman wasn’t dying enough. Some hospitals set up “therapeutic abortion committees” to rule on abortion requests, to ensure no single person took the fall if they saved a woman’s life. At some hospitals, suicide attempts were reason enough, at others, not so.

Before Roe v Wade, the criminality of abortion was not about protecting fetal life at all. Openly, it was about creating a medical establishment elite, ensuring white Protestant supremacy, and keeping women firmly in their place.

The goals of the anti-choice, anti-abortion movement today are largely the same: keeping women in their place, and ensuring that white women aren’t aborting. Today, however, they couch it in a concern for fetal life, and attempt to ban it by granting the fetus the same rights and privileges afforded to born person.

[]()Personhood today

Today the war-cry of the anti-abortion movement is the idea of giving fetuses, from the moment of fertilization, the same rights as any other person though a “personhood” amendment. To them, giving a fetus the rights of a person would make abortion de facto illegal, as it would be the same as murder. They make no exceptions for the life of the person who is pregnant, or rape and incest survivors.

However, since the fetus occupies the pregnant persons body, the pregnant person would _have _to lose his or her rights. As any “slip up” in being the perfect pregnant person could result in a miscarriage, and as any miscarriage could now be seen as manslaughter at best, a pregnant person could be prosecuted for miscarrying, having a still birth, or giving birth to a child with defects. People could be jailed for having a less than optimal pregnancy outcome. It is already happening.  But personhood would make these cases not strange news stories, but common occurrences.

People who are pregnant could be jailed for being overly stressed, taking a wrong medication mistakenly, unknowingly sipping the wrong glass at New Years Eve. People who are pregnant could be denied cancer treatment that might interfere with the pregnancy, or being denied any other medicine that may have even a slight risk for a defect. A pharmacist could refuse to fill a prescription for any person they think may be pregnant, even if they aren’t. A cashier could refuse to sell coffee to a person they suspect may be pregnant, even if that coffee is for someone else. Cis-women, and those who pass as cis-women, could be pulled over for potentially driving while pregnant. Anyone who could potentially be pregnant would be treated as “pre-pregnant” as, like the biology lesson explained above, _you could already be considered pregnant, even if you don’t know it yet. _So you would have to operate as if every person who could potentially _be _pregnant, _is_pregnant.

When I bring up this fact to anti-abortion activists, they say “Well that didn’t happen before Roe.” No, it didn’t. Because abortion was banned as a procedure, not categorized as murder. Even before Roe, the fetus has no rights. But the anti-abortion movement wants to give rights to fetuses, which have never had rights before.

Remember the earlier example? How a person could be 5 weeks into a pregnancy? Say that same person has some abnormal periods. So she might have gotten pregnant on June 19th, and then she starts bleeding on July 5th, a week after she was supposed to. This person might not think anything of it. It wasn’t a pregnancy, this person never got a pregnancy test, for whatever reason, and now, to them, it is just a late period. (People put off getting pregnancy testing because 1.) It can be embarrassing, as they are often kept locked up with the condoms, requiring a pharmacist, 2.) They can be expensive (yes, many places offer them for free, but it’s, again, embarrassing, it’s something most people want to do in private) and 3.) It could be just a late period, so why not wait one more week to see if your period comes? I also do the latter. Wait one more week, if it doesn’t come, _then _take it).

But, if personhood becomes a thing, then will we have to get every late period tested? For that matter, a normally timed period might _still _be a very early miscarriage. Would we be forced to submit every pad and tampon as “potential miscarriage evidence.”

This is happening now. The man running on the Republican ticket for Attorney General in Virginia wants to jail women for not reporting a miscarriage to the police within twenty four hours of it happening. Apparently, the miscarried products of conception are supposed to be “evidence.” But it’s not clear what they are supposed to be evidence of. Any of the above described incidents, perhaps?