The limits of “personhood”

In this excellent post, Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick takes a look at the insidious movement to extend and expand “personhood” and argues that the movement’s underlying tenets, taken to extremes by courts and legislatures, wind up demeaning the very essence of being human.

As Lithwick notes, corporations are people — at least for purposes of political expression — following the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC.  So too will zygotes be if anti-abortion activists have their way with legislators across the country.

And now the Supreme Court will once again address the scope of “personhood”  in the two cases it agreed to hear last week — Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. v. Sebelius and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius, deciding whether coroporations are people for purposes of religious expression as well.

Here’s why that determination should be troublesome for people (human beings) regardless of religious views or politics:

Hobby Lobby and Conestoga are ultimately so worrisome because they fuse together two of the most dangerous right-wing civil rights obsessions of our times: the ambition of large, for-profit corporations to see themselves as people, with faith, convictions, and consciences, and the attempt of citizens, using their own science and their own facts, to declare when legal personhood begins, and then impose universal laws based on those beliefs. The cases are a collision of two very insidious legal metaphors — that personhood begins when any one religion says it does and that religious personhood can be vested in corporations in ways that can be forced on workers. It simply cannot be the case that in a country of 319 million people, we are ready to recognize zygotes and Walmart as legal “persons.” We can protect animals and unborn babies and corporations without also embodying them with a humanity they don’t possess. Turning everything and anything into a “person” ultimately also serves to turn persons into things.


  1. genembridges

    December 4, 2013 at 10:26 am

    If Hobby Lobby wants to be treated as a person then Hobby Lobby needs to own that position. Put another way, they appear to want all the benefits of personhood without any of the costs. A religious conviction for a person in this area would logically fall under the concept of conscientious objection. Conscientious objectors are expected to order their lives in such a way that, in order to avoid conflicts with thier consciences, they also comply with the terms of the law in some manner. For example, in times of war, a true pacificist is not exempted from all service; rather an objector is put into service in ways that don’t involve them doing harm to other individuals.

    The Amish are good examples of such objectors, as are the Quakers. Historically, such objectors order their daily lives in such a way that they don’t come into conflict with the laws to which they object. There are consequences to objecting to certain laws. True objectors don’t seek, consequence free ways to object to such laws; rather, they live out those consequences. (By the way, this is precisely what Jesus had in mind in the Bible when he talks about their being consequences to following Him.)

    There are Quakers whose consciences really won’t permit them to pay federal taxes. Many of them manage that by making sure they don’t make enough money to incur tax liability. They live on far less than they could earn if they were willing to pay taxes, but they’re willing to make that sacrifice, because their conscience demands it. Now, we have Hobby Lobby who wants a consequence free exemption for the ACA – one that could set a disastrous precedent at that. If Hobby Lobby gets its way, then whose to say that down the road, an company like them couldn’t decide to only offer health plans that would not adequately cover things like HIV meds for persons living with HIV or finding plans that offer substandard coverage for any number of other things that the owners find objectionable, like pre-exposure prophylaxis for persons at risk for HIV, vaccinations, and so on. Let’s not forget that in this very NCGA just a few years ago, Larry Brown argued for the defunding of ADAP itself because in his mind, it funded “immoral lifestyles,” (by which he meant “queers,” to use his very own language). If the Green family’s conscience really forbids them from meeting their legal obligations under the Affordable Care Act, then they have the option to arrange their lives so as not to incur those obligations. They can choose not to run a two billion dollar corporation. That’s how conscientious objection actually works. Rather than do that, they have chosen to try to exempt themselves from the law instead of owning its consequences, which is precisely what Jesus Himself did *not* have in mind.

  2. Sean D Sorrentino

    December 4, 2013 at 2:47 pm

    I wholeheartedly agree with Ms. Lithwick. The fact that a right exists is enough to allow the government to insist that someone else pay for that right. We should treat the Second Amendment the same way.


    The right to keep and bear arms is actually written into the Constitution, so there should be no argument about whether or not it is a right.

  3. Jim Wiseman

    December 4, 2013 at 8:39 pm

    I try not to over-think these things. If a corporation or business owner doesn’t want to support the killing of “zygotes” they shouldn’t have to. Corporate “personhood” seems to be okay if it fits the regime narrative.

  4. Jim Wiseman

    December 5, 2013 at 6:44 pm

    BTW, Sean, I enjoyed your interview on Black Man with a Gun today.

  5. Sean D Sorrentino

    December 6, 2013 at 3:13 pm

    Thanks. I hadn’t realized that Pastor Kenn had posted it yet. He called me on Friday after Thanksgiving.

Check Also

State Supreme Court rules retroactive application of teacher tenure repeal is unconstitutional

The state Supreme Court ruled unanimously today that ...

Top Stories from NCPW

  • News
  • Commentary

Obsolete laws allow big campaign spenders to hide their identities until after Nov. 3 WASHINGTON — A [...]

Just off I-85, on the way into Kings Mountain, there’s a truck stop on Dixon School Road. Driving th [...]

One month after Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, having argued that the nation needs [...]

Recent rejection of proposed Wake charter reveals a system that can get messy, contentious and perso [...]

Americans can be a selfish lot. Not everybody, of course. But too many people couldn’t care less abo [...]

“Just make it end!” That’s what many Americans are thinking and saying right now about a lot of thin [...]

With North Carolinians on track to cast eye-popping numbers of votes in advance of Election Day, Nov [...]

In the rush to replace Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the U.S. Supreme Court, we’ve heard [...]