In response to proposed personhood ballot measures in states like Mississippi and Nevada — and the religious right’s broader battle against reproductive rights — Jim Fetzer has written a letter to the Wisconsin State Journal clarifying the very important difference between “human life” and “personhood”:

Those who believe human life begins at conception are correct about their biology, but wrong about morality. Personhood requires recognition through legislation and enforcement. Life and personhood are not the same.

If pregnancy entailed personhood, every pregnant woman qualifies not as one but as two persons. We would need morality police to maintain vigilant coverage of sexually active women to make sure that, should they become pregnant, the rights of those persons are upheld. 

An entity that cannot sustain life independent of its mother cannot properly qualify for personhood. So the Supreme Court [in Roe v. Wade] was right.

As I’ve previously written, personhood is granted to beings that have some degree of sentience, self-awareness, or agency. Fertilized human eggs clearly lack all three, as do fetuses until at least 28 weeks. That’s precisely why, as Fetzer mentions, the Supreme Court ruled as it did in Roe v. Wade.

That said, many reproductive rights defenders ignore the personhood issue and frame the abortion debate as one of women’s rights. Yet abortion is only a woman’s right because personhood arguments are utterly absurd. Recognition of this logical progression has important implications for debates on the subject. You can read my thoughts on this point here.