‘Personhood’ laws and the abolition of birthdays

On June 8, 1989, I went out to a bar for a drink after class. Had I done the same thing the previous night it would have been a crime, because that was the day before my 21st birthday, and the legal drinking age here in Pennsylvania is 21.

That age is calculated from one’s birthday, of course. So are all the other legal milestone ages, such as 16 (learner’s permit), 17 (driver’s license), 18 (voting and draft registration), 25 (renting a car) and 30 (running for the U.S. Senate). You reach each of those milestone ages on your birthday — the annual anniversary of the day of your birth, which is how we measure a person’s age.

But with several states now considering “personhood” amendments to their constitutions, these laws will need to be changed. And so will the cultural significance of birthdays. The passage of such amendments will mean that birth no longer holds any legal meaning with regard to a person’s age — and thus regarding the point at which one becomes legally permitted to drive, vote, drink, etc.

So how will we measure age and set such legal milestones under the new regime of personhood amendments? This gets tricky. I’m not aware of any other model for marking and measuring a person’s age. Has there ever been a human culture, society or civilization that employed some other method? (Historians and anthropologists please chime in here.)

We need to find, or to create, an alternative model because legally defining conception as the beginning of full, legal personhood will mean the abolition of birthdays. If legal personhood begins at the moment of conception, then age and aging — and the measurement of age and aging — must also begin at that moment. And that may involve a bit of guesswork.

Had a personhood amendment been on the books when I was in college, then I could have gone out for that drink much earlier — some time in the autumn of 1988. But when exactly? And exactness — a precise date — is what the law requires.

Careful calculation might be able, in some cases, to narrow down the guesswork involved — particularly for married couples who have fewer potential dates as possible starting points for those calculations. But in the vast majority of cases, the certainty and exactitude that the law requires wouldn’t be available.

We could, perhaps, settle on some one-size-fits all scheme, such as declaring every person to have achieved personhood precisely nine months prior to the date of their birth. That would hardly ever be an accurate date, but the system would be universal and thus, in that sense, fair. Every person’s Anniversary of Personhood would thus be set as the date precisely three months after the date of their birth.

Thus, for example, a child born today would celebrate their first Anniversary of Personhood of June 19, on which day they will be recognized as 1 year old. A person born today would thus reach the legal voting age on their 18th Anniversary of Personhood — June 19, 2029.

We’ll probably want to find a better name for the AofP, but whatever we choose to call it, the important point here is that this wholly replace the annual recognition of “birthdays” as a legal and cultural measure of age. Personhood amendments will render birthdays not just irrelevant, but illegal. And, of course, if the rationale for such amendments is correct, then the legal and cultural recognition of birthdays is also deeply immoral.

I’m not enthusiastic about the practicality or the elegance to my proposed solution to what should follow the abolition of birthdays. But, again, this is due to my inability to find any useful models in other cultures, societies or civilizations. Every human culture I’m aware of has followed some variation of the benighted, immoral, shamefully anti-life idea that the date of a person’s birth is somehow significant for measuring that person’s age.

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  • I’m fine with my actions and principles, thanks anyway.

  • Nathaniel

     Wow. Do I feel foolish.

    Just clicked on the link to your blog. Lets just say faces met palms. And not due to any screw ups on your part.

    Its obvious that we’re mostly on the same side of this issue politically and  policy wise. And that you are doing good work on this.

    I apologize for my snideness. If its any defense, all the bad news lately has gotten me into a bit of a siege mentality when it comes to women’s health.

  • Lori


    So the only situation in which there is balance is when one party has
    all the rights and the other is disposable? I don’t think that word
    means what you think it means. 

    I am well aware of the meaning of the word balance, but I’m not the one advocating for it, you are. As I stated, legally
    imposed balance is not possible in a situation where one of the parties
    is definitely a person and the other is a projection of some people’s
    religious beliefs.

  • Rilian

    I’d like to celebrate approximate-conception-day.  I’ve thought that if I had twins, then I’d celebrate one of them on approximate-conception-day and the other on birth-day, so that they each get their own day.  Ummm triplets ummm idk.

  • I appreciate it. And I do understand the siege mentality. I’m a family planning advocate (and user!), so I’m feeling it too. And having lots and lots of (as Toby Ziegler would put it) abrupt conversations with abortion opponents.

  • Meggie

     Russians also use to celebrate a name day. I believe (feel free to correct me anyone) that babies were baptised to God at about a week old and later, baptised into the church. This second baptism was when their name was announced and was the date they would continue to celebrate. In theory it happened 40 days after birth for boys and 80 days for girls, according to Old Testament rules but there was some leeway and it is not unusual when looking at historical documents to see several members of one family all with the same name day.

  • Anonymous

    P J Evans spaketh thus:

    Pro-lifers seem to be remarkably ignorant about conception, pregnancy, and birth.


    And lurking said:

    Yeah, notice that the uterus-owner isn’t even worth mentioning.

    Yes, there’s a lot that goes completely unmentioned by the standard pro-life position.  My sympathy only goes so far.

    There’s all sorts of problems with the usual pro-life position, and I’m sure you don’t need me to reiterate them.

    In the context of Fred’s post, my contention is only that the already almost completely arbitrary structure we have around birthdays (leaving aside birth, I’m sure we can agree that people don’t get magically more mature and competent the moment they hit 21 or whatever) is not a problem for the pro-life position (and that pretending it is basically lowers one to a level normally practiced by those other people).

    I would have some respect for a pro-lifer who recognised that the mother also has rights that are being infringed, and maybe proposed some way of mitigating this infringement of rights, who didn’t try to insist that pregnant women wanting abortions are all irresponsible murderous libertines, and that believing in the sanctity of human life also commits them to ensuring top-notch post-natal care and ongoing support for the child, and admit that the pro-choice crowd actually has a point or two.  

    Some of them probably do do this, but it doesn’t seem typical.

  • Meggie

    So, life begins at conception, whenever we decide “conception” actually is…

    Several of my friends have conceived their first child while on their honeymoons; Bali, Fiji, New Zealand, etc. Will they need to apply for Australian residence/citizenship? Maybe their own special little fetus passport to get into the country in the first place? Lol :)

  • Ursula L

    It certainly doesn’t address your “woman rights only/fetus rights only” dichotomy. 

    What dichotomy?  Say we grant a fetus all the rights of any human being.

    What right does any human being have to use the body of another human being for their own medical benefit, against that person’s will?  


    Even with the case of parent and child, the medical need of a child for, say, a blood transfusion, doesn’t translate into the legal right to compel a parent to donate blood.  Even if it is a matter of life and death for a newborn baby.  

    And donating blood is just a pinprick, nowhere near as uncomfortable, invasive or dangerous as carrying a pregnancy to term.  

    No one who is anti-choice is actually concerned with giving fetus the same rights as any other human being.  Because if a fetus has the rights of any human being, than a woman can choose not to donate use of her uterus for the fetus’s survival, in the same way in which she can choose not to donate blood for transfusion for her child who has already been born.  

    They want to create a unique situation where pregnant women loose the right that everyone else has to choose whether or not to donate use of their body or part of their body for the medical benefit of others.  

    I donate blood regularly.  That is my  choice.  It is a choice I make freely, for the medical benefit of other human beings.  That doesn’t mean that I want laws to force me, or anyone else, to donate blood.  And it doesn’t mean that anyone, even someone I’m closely related to, can claim a right to use my blood, or my bone marrow, or a kidney, or a section of my liver, or my uterus, for their own benefit if I don’t want them to. 

  • Lonespark

    Dude, I could have been driving at twelve?  Whoa…

  • Odosko

    There is no such place as ‘Outer Mongolia’,- it’s simply Mongolia. Must be careful of this, as the idea is that the term is propogated by the CHinese as it links modern Mongolia to the entity that existed during the Qing dynasty- a bit of semantic political subterfuge by CHina as it tries to subtly culturally vanquish those states in its sphere of influence (ie how China has tried to claim khoomei, or throat singing as its own).

  • Tonio

    The real dichotomy is between the woman’s autonomy and the government’s power. The latter can be misused not just to force women to carry pregnancies to term but also to force women to have abortions. It may be technically accurate to say that a woman has the right to make decisions for her body, but I state the principle the other way around as far as lawmaking is concerned –  the government doesn’t have the right to impose such decisions on the woman.

    I’ve been saying for a while that abortion cannot be dealt with a criminal justice issue, partly because it wrongly assumes that the real crime is that the women don’t want to be mothers. Anyone who is seriously and honesty interested in reducing abortions must address the reasons women choose abortion. This means giving women the tools and education so they conceive only when they choose to do so, and providing support for the women who do choose to give birth.

    I’m not exactly sure why so many people believe that sexual morality for women means no sex if there’s no intention of becoming a mother, and I doubt my theory about paternal privilege is completely sufficient to explain it. But this belief does much to explain why opponents assume that reducing abortions is a matter of getting the women to change their minds. Compulsory ultrasounds and waiting periods are patronizing and infantilizing, with the assumption that women don’t really know what’s involved. Opponents who push the former seem to believe that all women have mommy magic when it comes to babies. They apparently expect a Hollywood ending where the woman sees the ultrasound and breaks down in tears, confessing that she can’t go through with it. I’ve even heard the claim that anyone who wants to reduce abortions but not resort to such emotional manipulation is effectively pro-abortion. Even the opponents who don’t talk about the issue in slut-shaming terms seem to frame it in simplistic absolutes, thinking it’s all a matter of women making right or wrong choices with their pregnancies.

  • Lori

    No one who is anti-choice is actually concerned with giving fetus the
    same rights as any other human being.  Because if a fetus has the rights
    of any human being, than a woman can choose not to donate use of her
    uterus for the fetus’s survival, in the same way in which she can choose
    not to donate blood for transfusion for her child who has already been

    This is the thing I wish I has said before I logged off last night. It really can’t be said enough.

    So the only situation in which there is balance is when one party has all the rights and the other is disposable?

    This way of framing the issue is limited only to pregnant women and fetuses and dishonest WRT to how we deal with the issue of bodily integrity. It creates a supposedly unique situation in order to justify taking away the bodily integrity of pregnant women while preserving bodily integrity for everyone else. It uses manipulative language to obscure the incoherence of the anti-choice position.

    The usual response given by anti-choicers is that the fetus is a special case because it’s “innocent”, but that doesn’t work either. This is where the lack argument about a lack of clear distinction between just-before-birth and just-after-birth cuts both ways. A fetus is not in any meaningful way more innocent than a newborn. We don’t use state power to force parents to give up their bodily integrity to preserve the life of their newborn. Not even if it’s the parents’ fault that the newborn is dying. Not even if we think the parents need to be taught a lesson. 

    There are some very obvious reasons why anti-choicers want to “balance” the “rights” of the fetus against the rights of the pregnant woman in a completely different way than we balance rights between any two other people. Those reasons are not pro-women and they’re not flattering to anti-choicers.

  • Tonio

    My interpretation of Fred’s post is this – there’s no way to legally define “personhood” or “when life begins” with any sufficient rigor or preciseness, and that’s a major reason why abortion should not be a criminal justice issue. Is it a slippery slope argument to suggest that under such laws, women could be criminally liable for smoking during pregnancy?

  • Ursula L

    Is it a slippery slope argument to suggest that under such laws, women could be criminally liable for smoking during pregnancy?

    If it’s a slippery slope, we’ve slid halfway down it.  Women are already being imprisoned for “endangering the life of a child” for using drugs during pregnancy. 
    One woman was charged with murder, when she attempted suicide while pregnant – friends got her to the hospital after she drank rat poison, she gave birth, and her baby died a few days later.  http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/blog/2011/03/21/woman-tried-commit-suicide-charged-feticide

    Another woman found herself in prison after she fell down the stairs while pregnant – that, plus some conversations about how she wasn’t sure about going through with her third pregnancy, while in the middle of a divorce and with two children she was already raising with little help.  The charges were eventually dropped, but she still had to suffer through arrest, being jailed, and investigation.  http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/blog/2010/02/15/pregnant-dont-fall-down-stairs

  • Tonio

     Now here’s the real slippery slope argument…when I hear stories like that, I imagine pregnant women being forcibly confined during their pregnancies with no sharp objects at their disposal*, as if they would abort at the first opportunity. Granted, I’m not accusing the jurisdictions above of actually favoring or considering that – I suspect those are simply attempts at grandstanding for votes. Still, the effect is chilling for women’s freedom and autonomy.

    *Could I be half-remembering some piece of historical fiction where the evil lord keeps the pregnant heroine confined because she carries his last biological heir?

  • Rilian

    Well, if someone is *born* while their mom is on vacation, they’re still considered to be a citizen of wherever their mom is a citizen of.  So I don’t think where you’re conceived would matter either.

  • Anonymous-Sam

    It shouldn’t surprise me that that was Romania. I remember the “orphanages” — families were being encouraged (sometimes even paid) to give their children to the care of the government, who then packed them into warehouses to be taken care of on a 1 to 50 ratio by nursemaids whose only duty consisted of feeding and occasionally washing them. Let’s just say Tyson Farms knows more about raising children than the Romanian government. Many of those children lacked for social education so badly, they were unable to speak, and since they had never left their cribs, their bodies never developed mobility. Many of them are still physically unable to leave a bed.

  • Kogo

    Then I don’t care about balance. In a contest between women and fetuses, there is no fucking contest you theocratic shithead: FETUSES AREN’T PEOPLE.

  • [quote]They apparently expect a Hollywood ending where the woman sees the ultrasound and breaks down in tears, confessing that she can’t go through with it. [/quote]

    Over on Joshreads.com, the comics snark page, a popular target is the current Apartment 3-G storyline where a pregnant woman has made it perfectly clear that the only person who wants the baby is her husband and she can’t wait for it to be born so she can hand it off to him. Meanwhile other characters – even Margo, who’d probably recoil in horror if someone handed her a baby, and who’s bio mother didn’t want her either – are all repeating the trite “oh, when it’s born the hormones will kick in and she’ll love it”. As several commenters pointed out, what about post-partum depression hormones which hit even the mothers who desperately wanted the child?

    If Doonesbury is too offensive for the funny pages, how come this isn’t?

  • “you theocratic shithead”

    All I can do is laugh.

  • anonym

     well, that’s how they age horses…

  • jude

    I have to quibble with your reasoning. Personhood-from-conception wouldn’t have any impact at all on birthdays or age reckoning. Fetuses would have, as they do now, gestational age, and babies would still have a day on which they are born. Assigning legal personhood to zygotes, embryos and fetuses doesn’t actually afford them any legal rights except the right to life. The problem, of course, is that a fetus is not a legal person, and even if it was, its personhood would be subsumed by the personhood of the woman carrying it.

  • Ursula L

    Tonio, here’s another one pointing to us being halfway down the slippery slope.  


    The New Hampshire legislature is currently debating whether it should be a felony if a doctor won’t lie to their patient, or merely that a refusal to lie to a patient should mean loosing your license to practice medicine.  

    I was quite pleased to see a doctor objecting to laws requiring unnecessary medical procedures over at Scalzi’s blog.  http://whatever.scalzi.com/2012/03/20/guest-post-a-doctor-on-transvaginal-ultrasounds/

    But I’m both horrified and amazed that the AMA and other professional medical associations aren’t up in arms about the various anti-choice laws that interfere with the doctor-patient relationship, and that require doctors to lie to patients, or which protect doctors who lie to patients, or which mandate unnecessary treatments, or interfere with and unnecessarily delay treatment. 

    Even if they don’t care about women’s rights, you’d think that the AMA would care about a doctor’s right to practice medicine honestly and to the highest medical standard.  

  • Naomi

    So this means that in the current Evangelical conception of Heaven, zygotes, embryos, and fetuses will outnumber people who actually lived and breathed?