Foetal personhood laws attack reproductive rights

November 29, 2013
One of many pro-choice rallies outside NSW parliament, October 24. Photo: Peter Boyle

A new battleground has opened over the introduction of “foetal personhood” laws as the anti-choice lobby tries to use these laws to roll back women’s reproductive rights.

A private member’s bill giving legal rights to foetuses older than 20 weeks or weighing more than 400 grams passed the New South Wales lower house on November 21 by a large margin.

A similar bill was introduced in the South Australian Legislative Council on November 27 by right-wing Christian party Family First. It lost by one vote. The Western Australian parliament considered a “foetal homicide” law last year.

Supporters of foetal personhood rights have used a variety of false arguments to win support for the laws. NSW Liberal MP Chris Spence and WA Attorney General Chris Porter said they were trying to fix a “gap in the law” that doesn’t sufficiently punish people held responsible for harm to pregnant women, especially harm that causes miscarriages.

However, the NSW Bar Association, among others, says there are adequate penalties for the perpetrators of harm against pregnant women and that broader dangers will flow from giving foetuses legal personhood.

Laws giving foetuses legal rights will inevitably interfere with the rights of women. If a foetus of 20 weeks is given legal rights, it is only a short step before women and their doctors are prosecuted for aborting it.

The proponents of foetal personhood laws argue “unborn children” must be afforded the same rights as those who have been born.

Typically, the religious far right has been leading the charge. However, they are not the only ones. MPs from Labor and the Coalition supported the "Zoe’s Law" bill when it was voted on in the NSW Legislative Assembly.  

In Australia, the push for foetal rights coincides with the steady dismantling of social gains won by a more mobilised women’s movement during the 1970s and 1980s.

The push against reproductive rights is more advanced in the United States. After several decades of concerted campaigning, anti-choice conservatives have managed to restrict women’s access to abortion, but have been unable to make it illegal. Their latest tool is foetal personhood, which, although not a new concept, has been given a make-over. “Foetus rights” are being pushed as “personhood”, along with hollow legal and medical arguments that give an appearance of caring about harm done to women.

The experience in the US reveals that giving personhood status to a foetus has further reduced the lawfulness and accessibility of abortions.

Laws giving foetuses rights from conception have been rejected in every US state, but lawmakers have managed to introduce personhood measures in other ways.

The concept of foetal personhood is entrenched in child welfare and drug laws in many states with substance abuse during pregnancy legally regarded as child abuse and in some states considered grounds for imprisonment.

Thirty-eight US states have “foeticide” laws — which define a foetus as a person in certain circumstances. The consequences for women have been horrendous. In one recent shocking case in Wisconsin, Alicia Beltran was shackled during her pregnancy because the law allowed the courts authority over the foetus of a pregnant woman who “habitually lacks self-control” with drugs and alcohol so that there is “substantial risk” to the foetus.

Polls still show strong majority support for abortion rights in Australia, so why are conservatives managing to gain ground?

There is a push to force more “traditional” family responsibilities back on working-class women.

The “second wave” feminist movement in the 1970s began to force the state to take on some of the work connected with raising the next generation. Yet the bulk of the care of children and other household work was never significantly socialised.

Since then, neoliberal capitalist governments have been trying to shift more of the responsibility for this work back on to the family, and women in particular.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics has estimated that although the proportion of women in the paid workforce between 1992 and 2006 had risen (from 48% to 55%) women were still doing two-thirds of the housework.

The capitalist class relies on women’s unpaid work in the family home. It does not want to pay the full cost of the reproduction of the next generation of workers it needs to exploit.

So the dependence on women in the family unit has to continue.

This helps explain why at least a section of the ruling class still sees the need to keep women imprisoned in the family and to have reproductive rights governed by 19th century crimes acts or, if not that, by other laws and rules governing women’s reproductive rights. As former Coalition PM John Howard reminded us in 1996, the family is society’s “key welfare unit”.

The new conservatives have found a sneaky way to attack women’s most basic and what should be an unalienable right – the right to control their bodies.

Their agenda is still deeply anti-woman, but they exploit the anguish of pregnant women who have suffered accidents or assaults to disguise their real objectives. Women and men need to organise and mobilise now to push the conservative’s back before a state-based foetal personhood bill becomes law.

Pip Hinman addresses one of many pro-choice rallies outside NSW parliament, October 24. Photo: Peter Boyle

Police prevented most of the pro-choice activists from entering the public gallery to witness debate on October 24. Photo: Peter Boyle

Greens representatives Mehreen Faruqi and Jamie Parker join pro-choice campaigners outside NSw parliament on November 14. Photo: Peter Boyle

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