Abortion Wars

Newsweek Story on ‘Personhood’ Leaders Fuels Abortion Debate

Newsweek’s profile of the leaders of the ‘personhood’ movement sparks a war of words on the web.

Michael S. Williamson / The Washington Post / Getty Images

Newsweek’s profile of the leaders of the “personhood” movement, which seeks to ban abortion by defining human embryos as full-fledged people with legal rights, is drawing a stormy response across the web.

The viciousness of some reactions to the story, written by Abigail Pesta, only reinforces the vast gulf between the two camps on abortion. Indeed, The Daily Beast took the extraordinary step of closing the comments section on the story after several individuals posted personal attacks on the personhood activists. The most heated clashes in the hundreds of comments centered on the effort by the president of the nonprofit group Personhood USA, Keith Mason, to change state laws to say that life begins when egg meets sperm.

“Why are right wingers so emotionally invested with the private sex lives of other people? Mind your own business, wingers. Seriously. Get a life, your own life. Don’t believe in abortion? Too bad, you don’t get to force your beliefs on others,” said a commenter called CoyoteSmiles.

Replied a commenter named JamieSchofield: “We’re not. We’re emotionally invested in trying to stop people from MURDERING BABIES ... The issue is whether an unborn child is a person ... The issue of abortion has NOTHING to do with controlling anyone’s bodies or taking way people’s reproductive choice.”

The advocacy group NARAL Pro-Choice America tweeted about the story, advising followers: “Read this exclusive & jarring interview w Keith Mason, a leading activist behind #antichoice ‘personhood’ measures.”

That got pro-life sites riled. Live Action News, a site that describes itself as “a youth-led organization dedicated to building a culture of life,” took issue with the word “jarring,” accusing NARAL of disapproving the story because it reported both sides of the debate without picking a side. “A balanced article by a major news outlet scares abortion advocates,” the site said. “Instead of portraying the Masons as extreme misogynistic prudes leading the charge in the ‘War on Women,’ Newsweek portrays the personhood movement as cool, edgy, youthful, and—most importantly—growing.”

Slate weighed in as well, focusing on the possible wide-ranging effects of personhood on women. “The primary focus of the personhood movement is to ban abortion, but it’s also expected to have the effect of banning women from doing anything that could, in theory, damage a fertilized egg … personhood laws could be used to restrict the access of fertile women, whether pregnant or not, to many drugs … and certainly to fertility treatments like IVF that work by creating more embryos than can successfully survive the process,” wrote Amanda Marcotte.

She also offered a partial defense of the Masons: “One thing that I can say is that unlike many people waging the war against abortion and effective contraception, the Masons don’t seem like hypocrites. They did shun premarital sex … and they seem to be living their values by having one baby after another.”

In Newsweek, Keith Mason disputed claims that he opposes birth control, saying he is against only the forms of contraceptives that “kill a living human being.” The morning-after pill and copper IUD would fall into that category, as the FDA says both could prohibit an egg from implanting in the womb after fertilization, although the science behind this has been contested. Mason also said he doesn’t believe in-vitro fertilization should be banned, but rather “reformed.”

RH Reality check, a site focused on women’s reproductive health, said it’s not buying Mason’s argument and that it continues to believe that “banning birth control” is a primary motive behind the personhood movement.

Jill Stanek, a prominent pro-life activist, defended personhood on her site, taking a similar approach to Like Live Action News. She accused pro-choice activists of being angry because the magazine published “a fair piece” rather than giving an opinion.

On Jezebel, writer Katie J.M. Baker said, “The ‘personhood’ movement ... might sound super fringe or like a bad joke from an SNL episode—especially when its supporters are forced to go to such ridiculous lengths to try and uphold it, like when Kentucky Senator Rand Paul tried to sneakily insert a ‘personhood’ clause into a bill about flood insurance yesterday—but the movement is growing, and its leaders have big plans for the future.”

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Over at Newsweek’s Tumblr page, more than 500 bloggers were going at it.

“The whole issue here is that the rights of the fetus as a person are being defined at the expense of the rights of the woman as a person … but without the woman, you don’t have a fetus,” said a blogger called Christina D.

A blogger called Half Sick of Shadows disagreed, saying, “Abortion is murder. End of story.”

Countered a blogger called On Second Thought, “Once again, a guy leading the fight against my rights with my uterus.”