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Abortion, rights and the meaning of personhood

By Jocelynne Scutt - posted Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Yet again a US media furor brings together three elements: abortion, rape and Republican politicians. Hard on the heels of former presidential candidate Rick Santorum's assertion that women pregnant in consequence of rape should 'grin and bear it' – 'it' being the key word, referencing the putative child, Senate candidate Todd Akin asserts, in contrary fashion, that no 'legitimate' rape results in pregnancy. Although these fellow politicians may at first glance appear to stand at different parts of the spectrum, Santorum in no doubt that pregnancy can be an outcome of rape, Akin asserting it cannot, they – like an apparent majority of Republicans in office, seeking office or in the GOP – agree on one essential: unlimited protection must be extended to a human ovum fertilised by human sperm.

This contention is phrased in the language of personhood, the subject of a 2011 Bill before the US Congress. On 7 January that year, in the 1st Session, Rep. Broun of Georgia introduced HR 212, 'to provide that human life shall be deemed to begin with fertilization'. Co-sponsored by Akin and (now) GOP vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan, the Bill had fifty-three additional sponsors. Of the entire fifty-five, three – Ms Foxx of Arizona, Mrs Myrick of Tennessee and Mrs Black of Georgia are women.

The 'Sanctity of Human Life Act' seeks a constitutional change based in the 14th Amendment, the 'equal rights' amendment of the US Bill of Rights, to assert:


'(A) the right to life guaranteed by the Constitution is vested in each human being, and is the paramount and most fundamental right of a person; and

'(B) the life of each human being begins with fertilization, cloning, or its functional equivalent, irrespective of sex, health, function or disability, defect, stage of biological development, or condition of dependency, at which time every human being shall have all the legal and constitutional attributes and privileges of personhood …'

Accordingly, the Bill continues, Congress, together with Washington, DC, every state and all US territories shall 'have the authority to protect the lives of all human beings residing in [their] jurisdiction'.

Under the Bill, a one-celled human embryo, whether created by fertilisation or cloning, is 'a new unique human being', whilst 'human' and 'human being' denote 'each and very member of the species homo sapiens at all stages of life, beginning with the earliest stage of development, created by the process of fertilization, cloning, or its functional equivalent'.

Perhaps tellingly, the Bill does not define personhood. This may well be intentional, for once questions are raised as to the 'legal and constitutional attributes and privileges' of 'personhood', the issue of sex/gender differentiation and discrimination in law, society, culture, the economy and the polity comes into sharp relief.

That women's lives, wellbeing and claims for personhood are central to the entire argument about the 'status' and 'protection' of embryos is the unacknowledged presence in the room. That women's rights are at stake is confirmed in the response to politicians such as Santorum and Akin. That these men have no or little regard for women's rights is evident. It takes the media to remind Santorum, Akin and their ilk that women not only exist as human beings but, as human beings, have a voice and a place in the debate.


On 19 August, in an interview with Missouri television, Akin averred there was no need for a rape exception to a ban on abortion: 'If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.' In his February Piers Morgan interview, Santorum said where pregnancy results from rape, women should not be entitled to abortion but, rather, 'ought, in such a circumstance, welcome this horrible gift from God'. The 'horrible gift' – odd language for someone who purports to care for embryos so much that their existence is sacrosanct – is the child born of rape. Yet perhaps the language of 'horrible gift' is not so odd, when analysis indicates that in the end it is not the putative child in issue, but the embryo itself. This is where attention is paid and this is where attention is all, as in the proposed 'Sanctity of Life Act'. Of which, more later.

As for Akin, he was obliged to temper his remarks, the excuse being along the usual lines – 'taken out of context', 'misspoken' or 'misunderstood'. Under the threat of being required to resign from the Senate race, Akin quickly asserted that no rape is 'legitimate':

'Rape is never legitimate. It's an evil act that's committed by violent predators. I used the wrong words in the wrong way.'

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About the Author

Dr Jocelynne A. Scutt is a Barrister and Human Rights Lawyer in Mellbourne and Sydney. Her web site is here. She is also chair of Women Worldwide Advancing Freedom and Dignity.

She is also Visiting Fellow, Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge.

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All articles by Jocelynne Scutt

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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