Libertarian Hawk


Why Corporations Are Persons and Fetuses Are Not

November 02, 2011 By: Scott Spiegel Category: Miscellaneous


Image by Scott Spiegel via Flickr

On Tuesday the Mississippi electorate will vote on a controversial amendment to the state constitution declaring that “the term ‘person’ [is] defined to include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the equivalent thereof.”  The Mississippi Personhood Amendment, as it is known, is echoed by similar ballot measures in a half dozen other states.

Since it is illegal to murder a person in all states, and all states have laws dispensing jail time or even the death penalty for murder, the logical conclusion from these referenda is that they will instantly reclassify a broad swath of society as felons.  Have pro-life advocates prepared state corrections officials for the flood of recently pregnant women, abortion doctors, and “morning after” pill consumers they’ll be sending to the pen or the gas chamber?

Mississippi’s law, the most extreme state personhood referendum on the ballot this year, would ban all abortions, some forms of birth control, and all embryonic stem cell research.

Jessica Valenti notes that Proposition 26 would “prioritize the rights of fertilized eggs over the rights of the women carrying them.”  Passage of the law would lead to the absurdity of proclaiming fertilized but unused eggs in a Petri dish to be persons and outlawing in vitro fertilization.

Pro-life conservatives have been crowing about the recent spate of stealth victories their movement has won on the state level.  In The Weekly Standard, Fred Barnes explains that this progress has been possible largely because gay marriage has become the more visible social issue in recent years and has detracted attention from continuing behind-the-scenes efforts to restrict abortion.  Such advances are supported, Barnes argues, by technological breakthroughs in sonogram quality, which have made fetuses seem more developed and autonomous than imagined.

Never mind that the reason new abortion restrictions have passed in multiple states is that Republicans took control of 26 state legislatures in 2010 by campaigning against Congressional Democrats’ stimulus spending and health care plan, and that the GOP did not receive some special mandate to start outlawing abortion.  In the minds of the religious right, the momentum is on their side, and they are becoming increasingly bold in their attacks on abortion rights.  As Barnes approvingly notes, anti-abortion crusaders have become “almost wildly ambitious, and more relentless than ever.”

To give a taste of the recently radicalized movement’s fervor, a pro-personhood newsletter in Mississippi assures voters that, while extreme, Initiative #26 would not criminalize miscarriage.  Oh—well, that’s a relief, then.

Meanwhile, go back in time to January of 2010, when the left was enraged because the Supreme Court had ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that corporations, not-for-profit organizations, and unions have the same rights as citizens to spend money to express their political views by endorsing candidates or parties in the final months and days leading up to elections.

Justice Antonin Scalia ripped into Justice John Paul Stevens’ flimsy dissent, noting, “It never shows why ‘the freedom of speech’ that was the right of Englishmen did not include the freedom to speak in association with other individuals, including association in the corporate form.”  Organizations from the Heritage Foundation to the American Civil Liberties Union supported the decision.

Democrats Charles Schumer and Chris Van Hollen subsequently sponsored the DISCLOSE Act to try to squelch the free speech Citizens United had unleashed, but the bill failed to pass in the Senate.

No, of course corporations aren’t literally persons, or at least single persons.  They are considered “legal persons” under the law, not “natural persons.”  But they are made up of persons, and persons run them and act on their behalf.  Persons own the resources they wield.  Persons control how they are configured and operated to provide products and services that keep the corporations—and their employees’ jobs—in existence.

Why are liberals upset that corporations can exert political influence, when the persons that make up corporations can exert political influence?  How is a 1,000-employee corporation that exerts political influence different from 1,000 employees doing the same?

How is a corporation’s power more offensive than a single billionaire such as George Soros virtually controlling the operations of one of the country’s two major political parties?

Because the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill, which Citizens United overturned, contained an exception for media corporations, I suppose Democrats would have us believe that corporations aren’t persons, but newspapers are.

But back to Mississippi.  Despite the claims of the recently ascendant “personhood movement,” a fetus simply is not a person.  It is biologically attached to and dependent on its mother, who is a person.  A newborn baby is incapable of surviving for long on its own; a fetus is even less so.  Unlike a physically-separate baby disconnected from its mother and beginning to move about and explore the outside world, a fetus is passive and lacks agency—the ability to act on its environment to pursue life-sustaining goals.

The Citizens United decision was proper, because it correctly identified the link between an individual’s agency in influencing the political process and the agency of a collection of organized individuals influencing the political process.

The Mississippi referendum falsely attributes agency and personhood to a fetus.  It should be soundly rejected.

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