Personhood = Patriarchy

2011 was a strange year for American uteruses. I’m hoping that 2012 proves more fruitful (in an entirely un-fertility pun sense) for the rights of women to make basic choices for their sexual and reproductive health and rights however in the mean time I want to have a little think about the concept of personhood (an attempted constitutional amendment which would legislate that human-ness starts at conception) and how it equates to not only bullocks-iness but also massive patriarchy-ness.


Because if a human begins at conception it means that the MAN is responsible for life, not the WOMAN. Conception is the moment at which the sperm enters the egg and voila! human-ness. At this point, all the woman has had to do is sprout a little egg out a folicle (oh and of course spread her legs, willingly or unwillingly). While I would never support any similar legislation that suggested life begins at implantation or at foetal heartbeat or any other meaningless moment in time that the woman’s body has more control over, I feel like the concept of personhood beginning at the moment of conception is particularly rancid precisely because it takes away all control from the woman.

Let me illustrate my point further. Under the proposed (and squashed) Proposition 26 to the Mississippi Constitution, human life and subsequently their inalienable rights as a human and citizen of the State of Mississippi would start at conception. The moment at which the sperm enters the egg. Consequently, abortion would be legally considered murder in that state. But what else would it mean? Assumably, it would also mean the following would be murder;

  • the disposal of unused embryo’s from IVF treatment.
  • the use of emergency contraception or other birth control which works by preventing implantation but not necessarily fertilisation.

But where else do the shades of grey fall? Under Prop 26, would the following situations also be murder?

  • The death of a foetus directly attributable to dangerous driving, drug use, falling down the stairs, violence?
  • What about a woman who has repeated miscarriages? Would she be considered to be recklessly endangering the life of her foetus if she continues to try to get pregnant with the knowledge that it could well end in miscarriage?
  • How about if a woman chooses to give birth at home and the infant dies? If she doesn’t take all potential medical interventions is she a murderer? is it man-slaughter? reckless endangerment?

And what does this mean for saving the life of the mother in the event of an emergency? Will Prop 26 mean that women will be allowed to die for want of an abortion? Will the purposeful destruction of the foetus be murder while allowing the mother to die simply be a sad consequence? These are all questions that need to be asked and are being asked by thoughtful women and men in the US and thankfully, the people of Mississippi saw the potential catastrophe of Prop 26 and rejected it. But my focus remains on the concept of personhood itself. And how, by insisting on life starting at conception, people who support Prop 26 are perpetuating dangerous patriarchal standards.

Scientifically, personhood ignores the realities of childbearing and birthing. A multitude of factors have to be present in order for a human woman to conceive and bear a live child. Sperm entering the egg is only one of those factors and is essentially the least important. We can do that in a laboratory, in a petri dish, under a microscope. In sports analogy terms, fertilising the egg is like putting on your uniform, just because you’re wearing it, doesn’t mean your going to play, and winning the game is a whole other question entirely. BUT, it is the only part of the equation that the man in question has any control over and that is why I think it is patriarchal. Once the egg is fertilised, it still has to travel into the uterus and implant on the wall lining. It then has to divide at an appropriate rate for an appropriate length of time. Any number of factors will impact on whether or not this happens and how well it happens and as any woman who has tried in vain to get pregnant it is neither easy, nor passive for the woman. The right diet, the right health, the right body fat ratio are all factors which on the likelihood of a successful pregnancy. And then there’s the x factor, sometimes, it’s just not going to happen and there’s nothing that we can do about that, however fertility experts will tell you that once you’ve checked that the man’s penis and sperm are in working order the only place to look for problems is with the woman, not because of any fault or defect in the female human but because it is the woman’s body that is responsible for all the needs, wants, whims and wishes of the foetus. Personhood is Patriarchy because it ignores ALL of that and gives the power back to the male.

Socially, personhood perpetuates and sustains the social structures which demean and disempower women and their right to control their own bodies and most particularly their reproduction. Patriarchy is a social structure which gives power to men over women in decision making, resource allocation and opportunities. Assigning humanity to a zygote at conception removes any power or control a woman has over her body and self. It gives rapists further opportunity to demean and disempower their victims by giving their role as potential impregnator greater social importance than the woman’s role as lord over her own sexual and reproductive destiny. When societies choose to value unborn foetuses over living, breathing, human women, they enhance and expand patriarchy, disadvantage women and girls over men and boys and deny one gender the rights and opportunities that the other gender takes for granted. In my opinion personhood, rather than being the ultimate protection of human rights is the ultimate destruction of half of humanities rights which is an essential part of maintaining the status quo of the patriarchy.

Morally personhood is the destruction of human rights over nearly-human rights and is only possible against women. A woman’s right to choose the number and spacing of her children is an essential moral and human right which should be fought for and upheld the world over. The pro-choice statements “children by choice, not by chance” and “every child a wanted child” are moral statements not only about the rights of women to control their reproduction but also of children to enter the world with all that it has to offer them. It may seem on the surface that assigning human rights to embryos is giving them greater opportunities, rights and freedoms but what it actually does is limit their rights and freedoms. Under personhood, the moment a girl child is capable of bearing children, her rights are diminished. From that moment on, she is less important than the eggs residing in her ovaries, hundreds of little potential humans who the minute they meet a sperm, whether by choice or force or coercion or any other means, are more important and have more rights than she.

And that is patriarchy, and that is wrong.

Images taken from Rebecca-Lee and Robert Crum‘s photostreams on Flickr under creative commons licence.

3 thoughts on “Personhood = Patriarchy

  1. Personhood is another disturbing law pushed forth by people that for some inane reason HAVE to control others. It sickens me. I cannot wrap my thoughts around what is wrong with those types of people. I have already signed petitions and sent letters to my senators against this ridiculous law. If it passes I might just die laughing!

  2. This is an absolutely fantastic post; one of those times, quite frequent in feminist discourse, wherein a jumble of thoughts in my head become so cohesively articulated. Thank you, MsElouise.

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