Fetal Personhood Laws

One of The United States’ most well-known, but fraught, exports, from the point of view of importing nations, is its culture – most notably its music, television and movies. Less well known, but of greater consequence for women, is the export of new anti-choice tactics by the Catholic Church and its allies in the culture war that insists that all abortion be outlawed. The newest of these tactics is the Fetal Personhood Law.

Latin America and the Caribbean needed no help from the United States in criminalizing abortion. The termination of a pregnancy has been illegal or unobtainable in the region even since nations were formed. In contrast, most European countries have been moving over the past few decades in the direction of decriminalization of abortion. Recently, the government of Catholic Spain proposed to amend its current abortion law, which permits abortion only in cases of rape, fetal defect or if the pregnancy poses a danger to the woman’s physical or mental health, by proposing a new law, which permits abortion on request up to 14 weeks of pregnancy and thereafter in the cases permitted under current law.

Anti-choice activists in the United States have seized upon a new tactic in their campaign to criminalize abortion by so-called Fetal Personhood Laws, which declare that the right to life extends from the point of conception, not just from birth, and that the right of the fertilized egg to life surpasses that of the mother. Recently such a law was passed in North Dakota, the Personhood of Children Act, which declared that the term “individual” or “person” includes any organism with the genome of homo sapiens. This law will undoubtedly end up being reviewed, and hopefully overturned, by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Catholic Church has now taken this campaign to Latin America and the Caribbean. Mexico City last year decriminalized abortion. In reaction to the Mexico City law, about ten states in Mexico now have laws protecting life from the moment of conception. The Dominican Republic recently did North Dakota and Mexico one better (or worse) by amending its Constitution to state that the “right to life is inviolable from conception until death.” By so doing, the DR has effectively outlawed abortion in all cases. One commentator stated that the country has put “dogma ahead of the needs of the population, health, housing and better living conditions.” He might have added that enforcement of this constitutional provision is impossible (how does one make sure every menstrual period or miscarriage is natural) and, even if attempted, would create a police state and detour even more resources from the needs of the population.

Constitutional provisions of this sort in Latin America have been the source of attempts to ban emergency contraception (EC). Proponents argue that EC interferes with an existing pregnancy after fertilization, rather than, as is the medical case, by preventing conception by delaying ovulation or interfering with the fertilization process.

This battle has been most contentious in Chile. The Chilean Constitution has a form of a Fetal Personhood Law and states that “the law protects the life of those about to be born.” Abortion is prohibited without exception. After a long legal, constitutional and political battle, the lower chamber of the Chilean Parliament recently approved legislation, by a vote of 73-34, that guarantees the right of the people to access all forms of contraception, including EC. The bill now goes to the upper chamber.

While this bill is a long way from Spain’s recent effort to decriminalize abortion, it is a step in the right direction, and hopefully the new Spanish culture, rather than the American version, will take hold in Latin American and the Caribbean.

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