Alienable: how personifying corporations & zygotes robs real people of their rights

We the peopleIn the U.S. Declaration of Independence three “inalienable rights” are said to be endowed on people: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

People also have other rights in the U.S. including freedom of speech and religion.

These rights seem clear enough, but wait a minute….what are “people”?

What entity qualifies as a “person” to have these rights?

In America today this seemingly simple question has become an area of surprisingly intense contention.

From a historical perspective, one might argue that a “person” qualifying for the three inalienable rights of the Declaration of Independence and other rights of the U.S. Constitution is the entity that exists from the moment a baby is born until their ultimate death.

Today in America that “quaint” notion of how to define a “person” is under attack on multiple fronts and the stakes are very high. This attack could take away your rights as a person no matter who you are.

One challenge comes from those in favor of “corporate personhood”.

In this way of thinking, most famously voiced by U.S. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney in his “corporations are people too” comment, corporations have human rights.

I wish I were joking.

The argument goes that companies should have some elements of constitutional rights since they are in essence groups of people. Courts have issued many rulings in this area over the years, but one recent ruling in particular stands out. In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case that corporations had First Amendment rights to free speech just as biological people do.

Debate continues over this ruling with particular concern that it has corrupted the election process in the U.S. via “big money” donations to campaigns.

Regardless of how one feels about the possible impact of Citizens United on the elections process, I believe that the ruling has the effect of dehumanizing real people. When you give human rights to entities such as corporations that are not people, in that equation you take away rights from real people. There is no escaping that conclusion.

A second challenge to the historical definition of people as entities ranging from newborn babies until death comes from the so-called “personhood” movement. In the personhood perspective, the quality of personhood is not bestowed at birth and not even when a developing fetus can survive outside the womb, but rather way way back much earlier….right at the moment of conception. Thus, in this worldview, a one-celled zygote is a person and has all the same human rights as say a baby or a 30-year-old woman.

In this extreme way of thinking, at the moment of conception a woman is really two human beings even though she has no idea that she is pregnant. Even so, if she drinks too much or carelessly trips and falls or gets in a car accident or does any of a number of other things including using the birth control pill that in some way contributes to the failed future development of that fertilized egg, she has supposedly killed a person according to the advocates of personhood. In this way the personhood movement directly dehumanizes the hypothetical woman in our example. It takes away the constitutional and human rights of all women in fact. The personhood movement “alienates” the woman’s rights, assigning some of them to the zygote, a single cell. On a larger scale, the personhood movement alienates the rights of all real human beings, whether men or women.

Together corporate and zygote personification have the dangerous effect of dehumanizing real people. I believe these efforts are in fact unconstitutional and harmful to society. However, no matter what you or I may think, these extreme movements appear to be gaining in power as astonishingly they are now publicly espoused by leadership of the Republican Party in America. Yes, the same party that says “Keep big government out of my life”.

Real, living, breathing, thinking people are becoming just a little bit less real each day in America in terms of their legal standing. Things that are not people (zygotes and corporations) usurp some of our rights ironically at the hands of extremists who claim that they are morally or ethically superior to us and are “pro-life” or “pro-person”.

We need to stand up to those eroded our rights as people and fight their efforts to mainstream their radical ideas.

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