“Did you feel they treated you like a person?” The question is posed near the end of the new documentary “Personhood” to Tamara Loertscher, a Wisconsin woman who was imprisoned in 2014 while pregnant after disclosing prior drug use to her doctor; tests showed traces of methamphetamine in her body.
Loertscher and her attorneys have maintained that she stopped using drugs when she found out she was pregnant, but as the case unfolded, her history of drug use and Wisconsin’s “Unborn Child Protection Act” became the state’s justification for giving her fetus more legal rights than she had. Loertscher’s fetus was appointed an attorney; she, initially, was not. When Loertscher refused drug treatment, she was jailed, which effectively cut off the prenatal care she had sought.
When Loertscher says “no” to that question, it is a blunt, tearful abstract of the film itself — directed by Jo Ardinger and produced by Rosalie Miller, both of Seattle. “Personhood,” which won an American Bar Association award for fostering public understanding of law and is currently making the (digital) festival rounds, seeks to make sense of Loertscher’s baroque predicament, laws like the one used to detain her, and a rising movement to categorize fertilized eggs, embryos and fetuses as people with their own legal rights separate from the people carrying them.
While anti-abortion legislation typically seeks to outlaw or place limitations on abortion access, personhood laws and their ilk have been used to charge pregnant women with crimes for situations much like Loertscher’s — things like attempting suicide while pregnant, having a negative pregnancy outcome and a history of drug use (when one did not facilitate the other), and being shot and subsequently having a miscarriage. As with anti-abortion regulations, these laws tend to have disproportionate impacts on low-income women like Loertscher and women of color.
In “Personhood,” Ardinger pairs Loertscher’s story with insight from legal advocates, personhood activists, reproductive justice advocates in Tennessee and Colorado, and even bioethicist Arthur Caplan for some scientific grounding (embryos, he says, are not people). Here’s what Ardinger had to say about the legal landscape documented in “Personhood,” and what it might look like in the future.
Q: Nationally, there are a number of documented cases where personhood policies have been used to curtail the rights of pregnant people. Why did you choose to focus on just one? And what drew you to Tamara Loertscher in particular?
A: We reached out to several women during the filming process, but there was an understandable reluctance to participate while they were either incarcerated or navigating the legal system. On top of that, there’s an enormous amount of stigma attached to these experiences, which often involve charges of child abuse against a fetus. I was connected to Tammy through National Advocates for Pregnant Women, which is an organization that advocates for women across the country who get arrested or otherwise swept up in fetal personhood laws.
I was immediately drawn to Tammy’s story, not only because her experience in Wisconsin was so shocking, but also because of who Tammy is as a person. She humanizes this relatively unknown issue so clearly, and her story quickly became the heart and soul of the film. These laws disproportionately target lower-income women and women of color, and Tammy’s raw first-person account reveals how this nightmare plays out for pregnant women who don’t have a large support system. She allowed us into her life over several years, and this really gives viewers a window into the long-term impacts of these dangerous laws.
Q: In Tammy’s case, the “cocaine mom” law resulted in her imprisonment, which effectively cut off her access to prenatal care. That could’ve resulted in a much worse outcome for her baby. Why are the personhood groups you profiled positioning these policies as being about protecting the unborn?
A: These efforts are really just backdoor attempts to ban abortion. Passing laws that establish fetal personhood without explicitly mentioning abortion is very strategic and designed to gain support from a public that isn’t interested in recriminalizing abortion. In the process, pregnant women are being turned into second-class citizens under special laws that apply only to them. When politicians feel comfortable referring to pregnant women as “hosts” on television, it’s clear that this is about controlling women through their reproduction.
Q: How do the activists you spoke to justify what they’re doing?
A: These activists believe they are part of what they call the “civil rights movement of the 21st century.” They very cynically compare themselves to abolitionists, but in their quest to protect fetal life they have no problem violating the fundamental rights of pregnant people. The ends justify the means. Overall, there is a huge disconnect, with a healthy dose of hypocrisy. You can find the same faulty thinking in the fight to limit access to birth control. How is that going to lessen unintended pregnancies?
Q: Anti-abortion policies like targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) laws and parental consent typically originate with model legislation written by anti-abortion groups. Did you see something similar in personhood laws? Or was it more of a grassroots effort?
A: There is a strong grassroots component of the “fetal personhood” movement. Many people who identify as anti-abortion have become entirely disillusioned with the incremental approach of TRAP laws, and they’re willing to spend a lot of time and money to ban the procedure outright. But this also is a highly organized movement with a national strategy and powerful resources. There are personhood chapters in every state that are aligned with much larger organizations like Americans United for Life, which writes much of the legislation.
Q: What do you see happening in the future if personhood laws continue to go into effect? What would be better for pregnant people?
A: This movement is not going away. In fact, Colorado voters will face their fourth “personhood amendment” on the ballot this November. The language may have changed, but the goal is the same. As Lynn Paltrow from National Advocates for Pregnant Women says in the film, “There is no way to add fertilized eggs, embryos and fetuses to the Constitution without subtracting pregnant women.” If we continue to move towards becoming a personhood nation, then more and more pregnant people will be detained for suspected drug use, arrested for ‘suspicious’ miscarriages, or coerced into having C-sections against their will. I want to fight for a different future, where we provide pregnant people struggling with addiction with treatment instead of shackles. Throwing people in jail solves none of our social problems. We need to move away from our punishment model and provide pregnant people with access to health care and drug treatment programs, clean water, healthy food and safe communities that aren’t overpoliced. If we did some of these things then maybe America wouldn’t rank 55th [internationally] in maternal mortality.
“Personhood” will screen digitally at film festivals including the Bentonville Film Festival, which can be streamed from anywhere Aug. 10-16. Upcoming festival dates and more information can be found at personhoodmovie.com.