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NYT's 'Op-Talk' Blog Highlights Debate Over 'Personhood' Laws

July 25, 2014 — New York Times columnist Anna Altman in an "Op-Talk" piece highlights the conflicting sides of the debate over "so-called personhood laws," which often "recognize fetuses, embryos and fertilized eggs as persons who are separate" from the women who carry them.

According to Altman, while personhood laws vary in the 38 states that have them, they mostly "seek to protect this category of persons, whether from strangers or from the" women themselves. Altman writes, "Causing especially intense controversy are laws targeting substance abuse during pregnancy," noting a few recent examples of women who were incarcerated for using illicit drugs while pregnant. Tennessee Rep. Terri Weaver (R) -- who sponsored a personhood measure (SB 1391) that permits a pregnant woman to be charged with a criminal offense if she uses illicit drugs -- said "these defenseless children deserve some protection and these babies need a voice."

During an NPR "Fresh Air" segment exploring the issue last year, Barbara Levy of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists detailed potential issues with such laws. She said, "I understand the concern about the unborn fetus," but "the very best outcome for the unborn fetus is to treat the mom and the baby as a unit." She added that it is extremely important "to get the best care for the mom. That means she has to be comfortable and free to seek care without concern that she will be placed in jail."

Meanwhile, Kylee Sunderlin, a Soros Justice fellow at National Advocates for Pregnant Women, told Altman that incarceration can place extra burdens "on women who may be already struggling." Altman also discusses the experience of Deborah Jiang-Stein, whose own mother had substance use issues and gave birth to Jiang-Stein while in prison. Jiang-Stein, who wrote a recent Washington Post opinion piece describing her experience, has said that "addiction is a physical and mental health disease, and not a criminal justice problem."

Critics of the laws say that while the measures are "ostensibly intended to safeguard children," they "are making it harder for their mothers to care for them," Altman concludes (Altman, "Op-Talk," New York Times, 7/23).