Personhood is a notoriously tricky philosophical term to define, let alone argue about in court. Indeed, the argument that a fertilized human egg has personhood is an incredibly difficult claim to establish.
Nonetheless, it is an argument that anti-choicers have been desperate to see debated within the hallowed confines of the highest US court. Unfortunately for them, the Supreme Court has rebuffed such an advance for the moment by declining to hear the case Benson v. McKee, in which the Rhode Island Supreme Court had affirmed the right to an abortion.
This is perhaps a reflection that the discussion would be ensconced firmly within the realms of abstract philosophy, being an intellectual quagmire that would no doubt leave those debating stuck and somewhat messy.
Law very much prefers clarity and certainty. When tackling the idea of personhood, there is none to be had.
The June ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade sent shockwaves through the American political system and society. Benson v. McKee was originally brought against Rhode Island by Catholics for Life, an anti-choice group, as well as two initially pregnant women. Earlier this year, the Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled that the word “person” does not apply to the unborn. However, since the ruling made reference to Roe v. Wade, it was thought that this was an opportune time to continue the assault on bodily autonomy.
That Rhode Island ruling included the following: “The unborn plaintiffs fail to assert a legally cognizable and protected interest as persons pursuant to these repealed statutes, which are contrary to the United States Constitution as construed by the United States supreme court.”
The petitioners and their lawyers were imploring that the Supreme Court “should grant the writ to finally determine whether prenatal life, at any gestational age, enjoys constitutional protection —considering the full and comprehensive history and tradition of our constitution and law supporting personhood for unborn human beings.”
Although the Supreme Court has offered no comments regarding their refusal, conservative Justice Samuel Alito wrote in June’s ruling that overturned the precedent on abortion rights that the court took no position in the decision on “if and when prenatal life is entitled to any of the rights enjoyed after birth.”
Declining this ruling appears to fit in line with that opinion.