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The misogyny is the point

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How long must we keep a straight face?

Something that’s important to remember about last week’s ruling by the Alabama supreme court, which held that frozen embryos were persons under state law, is that the very absurdity of the claim is itself a demonstration of power. That a frozen embryo – a microscopic bit of biological information that can’t even be called tissue, a flick laden with the hopes of aspiring parents but fulfilling none of them – is equivalent in any way to a child is the sort of thing you can only say if no one has the power to laugh at you. The Alabama supreme court is the final court of review in that state. It cannot be appealed. For the foreseeable future, frozen cells in Alabama have the same legal status there as you or I do. Is this an absurd elevation of the status of an embryo, or an obscene degradation of human beings? The answer, of course, is both.

And needless to say, this degradation predates this particular manifestation:

Further, if embryos and fetuses are children, then the state may have an interest in protecting their lives that extends to controlling even more of women’s daily conduct. Could a woman who is pregnant, or could be pregnant, have a right to do things that might endanger her embryo in a situation where an embryo is her legal equal, with a claim on state protection? Could she risk this embryo’s health and life by, say, eating sushi, or having some soft cheese? Forget about the wine. Could she be charged with child endangerment for speeding? For going on a jog?

These scenarios might sound hyperbolic, but they are not entirely hypothetical. Even before the Alabama court began enforcing the vulgar fiction that a frozen embryo is a person, authorities there had long used the notion of fetal personhood to harass, intimidate and jail women – often those suspected of using drugs during pregnancies – under the state’s “chemical endangerment of a child” law, using the theory that women’s bodies are environments that they have an obligation to keep free of “chemicals” that could harm a fetus or infringe upon its rights.

Using this logic, police in Alabama, and particularly in rural Etowah county, north-east of Birmingham, have repeatedly jailed women for allegedly using drugs ranging from marijuana to meth while pregnant – including women who have claimed that they did not use drugs, and women who turned out not to be pregnant. In 2021, Kim Blalock, a mother of six, was arrested on felony charges after filling a doctor’s prescription during a pregnancy; the state of Alabama decided that it knew better than her doctor, and they could criminalize her for following medical advice.

This is not an extreme example: it is the logical conclusion of fetal personhood’s legalization – the surveillance, jailing and draconian monitoring of pregnant women, an exercise in voyeuristic sadism justified by the flimsy pretext that it’s all being done for the good of children. Except there are no children. 

The reasoning by which these legal burdens violate both the long-established right to privacy and the equal protection of the laws is, as the man said, awkwardly simple.

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