Yesterday’s Scenes from a Multiverse:

Personhood for fetuses, personhood for corporations, personhood for every damn thing!

Jonathan Rosenberg’s comment on his cartoon:

Seems like almost everything is people these days! (And some of the people who were people previously are treated like they’re not entirely people anymore.) I guess all you need is the right forms and a modest filing fee and you can be the sort of people you need your organization or clump of tissue to be.

Here’s an editorial cartoon (from among many), by Monte Wolverton in the L.A. Times, on the same subject:

Two threads here: the Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, memorably interpreted by Mitt Romney last August as asserting that “Corporations are people”; and “personhood bills” (giving legal personhood rights to embryos from the moment of fertilization) that have been under consideration in several state legislatures.

Treating corporations (and other entities) as persons for certain legal purposes has a long history. Such entities even have a technical name: juristic persons (sometimes artificial persons, fictitious persons, etc.), contrasted with natural persons‘human beings’. Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage, 3ed ed. (2011), defines juristic person as ‘a corporate entity’, or more precisely:

(1) “a mass of property or a group of human beings that, in the eye of the law, is capable of rights and liabilities”; or (2) “such a mass of property or group of persons to which the law gives a status.” (quotes from Thomas E. Holland, The Elements of Jurisprudence (1924))

Corporations, organizations, even ships can count as persons as set out in law. The Citizens United decision, whatever you might think of its consequences, was indeed restricted in its scope:

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 08-205 (2010), was a landmark decision by the United States Supreme Court holding that the First Amendment prohibits government from censoring political broadcasts [via PACs, or political action committees] in candidate elections when those broadcasts are funded by corporations or unions. (Wikipedia link)

The decision had significant public support:

A Gallup Poll conducted in October 2009, after oral argument, but released after the Supreme Court released its opinion, found that 57 percent of those surveyed “agreed that money given to political candidates is a form of free speech” and 55 percent agreed that the “same rules should apply to individuals, corporations and unions.” (Wikipedia entry)

Now, fetal personhood laws are quite a different thing. Formulated as part of sustained attacks on abortion and contraception, they are typically defended in other terms, as in this February 14th account of the Virginia bill:

The GOP-controlled Virginia House of Delegates Monday advanced a “fetal personhood” bill that would give legal rights to a human fertilized egg and a measure that would require women seeking abortions to first undergo trans-vaginal ultrasound tests. Delegates rejected an amendment that would have ensured contraception remains legal once the personhood bill goes into effect.

The personhood bill, sponsored by Del. Bob Marshall (R-Prince William), defines the word “personhood” in the Code of Virginia as beginning at the moment of fertilization.

… Marshall said he’s been working on passing a bill like this in Virginia for the past 20 years and insisted that the bill would not “directly” affect contraception or abortion — it just provides a legal framework for mothers to sue if anything happens to her unborn baby.

“The legal effect here is [if] a pregnant woman is driving in an intersection and someone runs into her, she can sue for loss of a child,” he said. “Under the current code, a mother cannot do that. [The bill] has no direct legal effect on abortion or birth control.” (link)

Then a bit later in Oklahoma:

The “Personhood Act,” introduced by Sen. Brian Crain (R), would give legal personhood rights to embryos from the moment of fertilization. A similar measure was rejected in Mississippi, one of the most conservative states in the country, because legal and medical experts raised concerns that the bill could ban some forms of birth control, in vitro fertilization and stem cell research. (link)

So far none of these bills have become law. Meanwhile, humorists have made much fun out of the idea, positing some absurd fetal rights (like driving, in the cartoon above, or voting or marriage) but some not so absurd (if fetuses are persons, can they be counted as dependents for income-tax purposes?). The point here is that fetal personhood laws would declare fetuses to be natural persons, not just juristic ones.

One Response to “persons”

  1. natural person | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] a 3/7/12 posting of mine on […]

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