Jo Ardinger’s PERSONHOOD Film Exposes The Danger Behind The Movement To Strip Pregnant People Of Their Rights

If you were outraged or shocked at the recent news where Georgia, Alabama and Missouri were competing to see who could criminalize abortion procedures and pregnant people in the most inhumane ad punitive way, then you haven’t been paying attention to the steady onslaught of attacks on reproductive healthcare by conservatives for decades.

The outright ban from certain states, emboldened by the anti-choice Trump administration, is only the latest tactic by the “pro life” movement to see especially women punished for having autonomy over their bodies, lives, and choices. We’ve seen attacks on clinic access (remember the Planned Parenthood propaganda videos from 2015 and the Whole Woman’s Health v Hellerstedt Supreme Court case from 2016?), fake clinics called “Crisis Pregnancy Centers” luring in vulnerable women with lies about abortion and pregnancy, as well as one particular movement that has steadily and scarily been gaining steam, mostly out of the mainstream media spotlight – fetal personhood laws.

This movement seeks to strip the pregnant person of their status and assign all rights to the unborn fetus in an attempt to see if this can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, so to speak. In other words, if if can be the type of policy that will eventually see Roe v Wade overturned in the United States. Although the “personhood” movement has enjoyed momentum away from the spotlight for quite some time, that is coming to an end with the release of a searing and insightful new documentary from director Jo Ardinger, that exposes just how awful these fetal personhood laws actually are.

Image: PERSONHOOD Facebook page

The documentary, aptly titled ‘Personhood’ was filmed over a number of years following one key storyline of a Wisconsin mother who became a victim of these anti-abortion personhood laws despite the fact that she wasn’t even planning on getting an abortion in the first place. This film expertly lays out how anti-abortion laws only serve to criminalize pregnant people in ways that can damage their lives in wide-ranging ways we may not even think of.

We had a chance to speak with Jo, as well as one of the reproductive justice experts featured in ‘Personhood’, Cherisse Scott who is the founder and CEO of SisterReach, currently the only Reproductive Justice organization in the state of Tennessee. Both women laid out in great detail what the fetal personhood movement means for pregnant people across America, and why it is important to stay education and fight back against the assault on reproductive rights. But first, take a look at the ‘Personhood’ trailer:

PERSONHOOD from jo ardinger on Vimeo.

JO ARDINGER:

How did you first learn about the “fetal personhood” movement and why did you decide to tackle this issue in a documentary film?

I first learned about the “fetal personhood” movement in 2011, when Mississippi tried to amend the state’s constitution to recognize fertilized eggs, embryos, and fetuses as legal persons. This move felt so different from other incremental efforts to restrict abortion access. It was terrifying to think about what giving fetuses separate legal rights meant for the rights of pregnant women. I had no idea that a system of laws had been growing since the passage of Roe v Wade that affected women who had no intention of ending their pregnancies. This was all happening in the shadow of the abortion debate. I started reading stories about women who’d been arrested for “suspicious” miscarriages or coerced into having C-sections and other medical procedures against their will, all under the guise of protecting the fetus. At that point, there was no turning back in terms of making the film.

Many people may have heard of the term, but might not be aware of the momentum fetal personhood laws have had in the US. Why do people need to pay attention to this? 

The stakes for women couldn’t be higher. As Lynn Paltrow from National Advocates for Pregnant Women says in the film, “this isn’t just about abortion or reproductive rights, this is about women, who upon becoming pregnant, lose their own personhood.” In the 7 years that it’s taken to finish this film, the push for fetal personhood has become more mainstream. In the past year alone, we’ve seen several states use fetal personhood as the basis for passing total abortion bans. We’ve also seen outrageous cases of women being held accountable for the outcomes of their pregnancies. Last June, the state of Alabama actually charged a woman in the death of her fetus after she’d been shot in the stomach by someone else. The twisted logic behind how these laws are applied is what’s so frightening – because this could happen to anybody. It’s so important for people to pay attention because the path for the United States becoming a personhood nation is being laid right now as the Trump administration remakes the courts.

Image: PERSONHOOD Facebook page

In your film you zoom out of the singular issue that the “pro life” lobby often focuses on (abortion) and look at the wider impact of these anti-choice laws, illustrated by Tammy’s devastating ordeal. What do you hope audiences will realize about fetal personhood laws by watching your film?

I hope the film personalizes this issue for people so they come away understanding just how dangerous these laws are for women and families. Pregnant women are being turned into second-class citizens with special laws that apply only to them. That should scare everybody. When politicians feel comfortable referring to pregnant women as “hosts” on national TV, it’s time to pay attention. One of our goals for the film is to help broaden this conversation.

By using “Personhood” as your title, what was your intention with this word in regard to the stories and voices you show in the film?

The use of the word “Personhood” as the title of the film is really about reclaiming this word for women. Sara Ainsworth makes a really important point in the film about how the word “personhood” has been co-opted by the fetal rights movement. We’ve seen this same tactic used with the words “pro life.” This really puts women completely out of the picture, and I think that’s all part of the strategy. Through Tammy’s story, I want to bring women back into this conversation. The 14th Amendment of our Constitution lays out the legal rights of personhood that are granted “to all persons born.” This means women, not fertilized eggs, embryos and fetuses.

One of the most powerful advocates in the film is Cherisse Scott from the SisterReach organization. Why was it important to have her input with regard to this issue? 

Cherisse is one of the most inspiring people I’ve met. Her voice is unflinching and so important to the film because she can speak directly to experiences of women of color and to the racial disparities that come into play when these policies are made and enforced. The inequities that are embedded in our culture and in our criminal justice system drive how disproportionately these laws are applied to women of color and lower-income women. Cherisse also speaks to the history of the reproductive justice model and to the importance of using this framework as the path forward to address our social problems. This was really her story to tell. 

Image: PERSONHOOD Facebook page

Your film is so timely and relevant, given the fast pace of virtual abortion bans happening in certain states and cuts to funding for certain reproductive healthcare services across the US. What impact do you hope to make among individual viewers as well as collectively in this country?

I want people to feel fired up enough to vote because that’s our most powerful tool with this issue. These laws are made and enforced by state representatives, judges, and district attorneys, so it really matters who holds these offices. Hopefully the film can be used as a tool by advocates to build momentum against these punitive laws. And my ultimate dream for Tammy and the other women of Wisconsin is that the legislature brings an end to Act 292.

Why should more people be paying attention to the criminalization of pregnant people in the US, regardless of their thoughts toward abortion? 

I think it’s important for people to see the very real ramifications of the policies they support. These laws can be used against anybody, regardless of their views about abortion. Women who identify as strongly anti-choice have been swept up in these laws as well. Your beliefs won’t stop the state from taking you into custody if someone deems that you are behaving in a way that is harmful to your pregnancy. How much power do people want to cede to the state? That’s an important question for anybody. It’s one thing to value unborn life, quite another to dehumanize the women who bring life into this world.

One of the most poignant moments in the film was when Sara Ainsworth who was Tammy’s legal representative, pointed out how the Wisconsin laws were supposedly designed to protect the fetus from Tammy’s actions, but when they put her in jail for 30 days they didn’t seem to care that Tammy was denied a doctor’s visit initially and didn’t get prenatal care. Additionally, Tammy’s unborn fetus was given its own legal representation by the state. Do you think stories like this will open people’s eyes to the reality of women being stripped of their rights as persons in order to assign them to a fetus?

If the details of this story don’t open people’s eyes, I don’t know what would.

Tamara Loertscher kisses her infant son | Photo credit: Rosalie Miller

Fetal personhood laws are intersecting with the issue of mass incarceration in America and you draw clear connections to that in this film. Why is this intersection important for people to know about in the greater fight for reproductive justice?

The statistics laid out in the film in terms of how these laws are disproportionately applied across race and class should be disturbing to people. The same system that fuels mass incarceration and the “war on drugs” also fuels these disparities. Our country is using the lucrative prison industrial complex as a solution to our social problems. People are making fistfuls of money off of the suffering of others. I think it’s shameful. What kind of country do we want to live in? We should use our resources to provide children with clean water, healthy food, and safe schools. We should provide people struggling with addiction with treatment not shackles. Throwing people in jail solves none of these problems. In fighting towards reproductive justice, maybe we can regain some of our humanity as a country.

As a filmmaker, was it difficult to hear some of the stories or opinions that are featured in the film? Feel free to explain why or why not, and how that motivated you as a director. 

I think the hardest part of this process was digesting what happened to Tammy in terms of the trauma that was inflicted on her in the name of “protecting” her fetus. I’ve lived with this footage for years and I still get choked up watching Tammy tell her story. The lack of care and respect shown to Tammy and the thousands of women that she represents was a huge motivator for me. It was also really hard to hear the disconnect that fetal rights advocates have in terms of the very real implications of the laws that they’re pushing. But I do think it’s important to present all sides of the issue and to show that disconnect. Maybe that will help change someone’s mind.

Tamara Loertscher cradles her infant son | Photo credit: Rosalie Miller

What does it mean to you personally to have ‘Personhood’ premiere at DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival? 

Our team worked so hard over the course of many years to finish this film so having our world premiere at DOC NYC feels incredibly validating. But it’s much more than having your work be recognized and appreciated by others in the industry. Being a part of DOC NYC really raises the visibility of the film and the issue at the heart of it. We hope this helps us create momentum that we can carry into a robust outreach campaign.

For those who want to use film and media as a means for social change, how would you encourage them to get started?  

I think the most important thing is to find an issue that you’re really passionate about because you’re going to need to stick with it for a long time. Pick something that you’re willing to fight for, and then start researching. It’s really important to understand all the different sides to the issue, as well as knowing how it’s been covered in the media and other films. From the very beginning you need to ask yourself how your story or angle will add a different perspective to the discussion. How will your film be different? Don’t be afraid to reach out to advocates working on the front lines your particular issue because they are the ultimate experts and a fantastic resource. In the end, it’s really about following your heart.

Tamara Loertscher prepares for her federal lawsuit against the state of Wisconsin | Photo credit: Marc Pingry

CHERISSE SCOTT:

As someone who has been working in the reproductive justice space for a while with SisterReach, can you explain why fetal personhood laws are harmful to women and the people you serve?

Fetal personhood laws are a tool of reproductive oppression in that they exploit, demonize and penalize vulnerable women and people who give birth through punitive policies and laws, instead of offering those same individuals the healthcare they need to thrive and be well. Failure to see the humanity in vulnerable women who find themselves struggling with substance use disorder (SUD) is dangerous for the mother, baby and family. It is also a public health failure. The current narrative places mothers and parents in opposition to their parenthood and their children.

SisterReach’s work fighting the law and our recent research report on the impact of the law offers a different narrative where we see how Tennessee has abandoned marginalized women with SUD instead of ensuring patient-led care opportunities for mother/parent and baby to thrive. Our report offers the reader an opportunity to explore the lives and circumstances that Tennessee mothers faced during their various journeys, which led to their drug usage. It is in these stories that the reality of drug-using mothers’ lives became clear. Many of the mothers we surveyed had a history of adverse experiences that informed the need to medicate their lives.

Image: PERSONHOOD Facebook page

What do you hope audiences will take away from watching Jo Ardinger’s ‘Personhood’ documentary and hearing the information you shared about the current state of attacks on reproductive healthcare? 

I hope that audiences will see the mothers PERSONHOOD highlights as real people – not monsters or intentionally negligent parents, as portrayed by law and policy makers or healthcare professionals, who do not care for themselves, their babies or their health. I hope they see broken harm reduction, public health and social welfare systems that are not in step with the cultural and systemic realities of drug-using people’s real lives and disparities. I also hope they take away the hypocrisy of the drug reform policy infrastructure that continues to use punitive and shaming tactics to chastise people into sobriety, but continues to fail to offer Americans their human right to affordable and accessible healthcare.

Many of the mothers impacted by feticide/fetal assault laws live in the Midwest and Deep South. These are areas where lawmakers rejected the expansion of Medicaid. These are also areas of the country where we see disproportionate numbers of death by opioid and other drug usages, infant mortality and maternal morbidity. The Trump Administration, and those who support this culturally incompetent way of curtailing drug usage and reducing neonatal abstinence syndrome has failed drug-using and dependent Americans, period.

You recently testified in the TN legislature about the state’s proposed abortion ban and your mic was cut off as you were speaking, and you wrote an op-ed in Vice about it. Can you share more about how personhood laws/abortion bans are also very much a race issue, as well as gender-related? 

I think before the race and gender issues are first the human rights failures of this country to make sure that every American has access to an abundant life – a reality that is only achievable when we all have unhindered access to the eight declarations of human rights. Unfortunately, if you are sick, ability challenged, identify as a woman, are queer-identified, a person of color, a young person or even a senior; or if you live at the intersection of any of these, you are ass out in this country. You are left to fend for yourself or are targeted because of your identities. Like anti-abortion laws, personhood laws are informed by zealots who often do not and will never walk in the shoes of those who are most vulnerable.

Their politics of respectability, high-minded intellect or misguided religious analysis is dangerous, erroneous and disingenuous. In both instances, mother and baby are dealt with in silo. In both instances, mother and baby are neglected before, during and after pregnancy, birth or an abortion. In both instances, mothers are targeted for the sex they have, the pregnancies they want, do not want, or cannot afford, and then the motherhood society believes they are not worthy of. Their failure to learn about the people they shame, whose bodies they legislate, whose cultural and religious practices and fears they disregard, and whose children they only care about until they are born or out of NICU demonstrate how much of a lie all of this actually is. 

Many people associate religion and faith with anti-choice movements. But you are a woman of faith yourself. How do you see faith play a role in your work for reproductive justice? 

Faith is as integral to my life, my work and the foundations of the reproductive justice framework as human rights is to ensure the American dream. Anti-choice supporters have hijacked the ministry of Jesus, not just a moral narrative, because the narrative has been siloed to one religious belief, and a perverted interpretation of it at that. Further, those of us who are pro-lives (not just pro-choice) and also people of faith, who also possess theological expertise, identify as Believers, and those of us with other spiritual beliefs or none at all have remained silent for the most part. We have witnessed the hypocrisy of these perverted zealots only giving a pass to white privilege and supremacy, or their misguided religious elected officials. They have racialized the Gospel and the Messiah to justify their colonialist actions since the beginning of this land named America and the continents they pillaged before this one. They are religious and domestic terrorists. And they should be engaged with accordingly. 

Can you give us an overview of how this issue includes abortion, but is about so much more than just that?  

One of the issues that SisterReach raised as a concern regarding the Fetal Assault Law of 2014-16′ legislation is that the wording was highly similar to anti-abortion legislation. In that same spirit, separating mother from baby as independent entities in order to fuel propaganda around harm of the fetus is the same tactics we have seen anti-abortionists use to gain political and financial support to dismantle Roe v Wade and control individual’s bodies. Controlling women is the main objective of both fights while exploiting harm against the unborn or the child born with NAS as a catalyst to control their mothers’ ability to parent.


You can learn more about PERSONHOOD screenings by going to the film’s website.

Image: PERSONHOOD Facebook page

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