Can corporations get pregnant?

Demonstration at U.S. Supreme Court

The “personhood” of corporations is a legal fiction, but there is nothing remotely fictional about getting pregnant. I have born three children and know this indisputable fact quite well.

Yet, remarkably, this week lawyers will actually argue before the U.S. Supreme Court, on behalf of two corporations, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties, that the contraceptive-care mandate included in the Affordable Care Act violates their clients (that is, these two corporations) religious liberty.

Since the Citizens United v Federal Election Commission decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, the fiction of “corporate personhood” is becoming an ever greater danger to actual personhood. It is important to read the dissent by Justice Stevens in that case, where the Justice argues, “corporations have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires…they are not themselves members of ‘We the People’ by whom and for whom our Constitution was established.”

Yes, that is certainly true. But Justice Stevens left out one crucial thing: corporations have no bodies.  You can’t be a person without a body.

Thus, corporations cannot get pregnant and have to wrestle, in an immediate and existential way, with the decision whether to get pregnant, or not get pregnant, including the real decisions about responsibility and accountability that must be made when considering bringing a child into this world.

These kinds of real, existential considerations involve the very operation of religious freedom in regard to conscience that is protected by our Constitution.

Women exercise the right of conscience in making decisions about whether or not to use birth control, and when a corporation or government entity tries to take that away from them, it violates their religious freedom.

So how did we get to a place where lawyers can even argue that disembodied entities, i.e. corporations, have religious freedom that should take precedence over the religious freedom of actual, embodied women?

This is a legacy of the strong influence of Greek philosophy on Western thought, and on Christian theology in particular: body and soul can be separated, and soul is superior to body, in these philosophies.

The “religious freedom” struggle, at the end of the day, is a struggle to make decisions based on conscience keeping body and soul together.

Corporations cannot do that because they have no bodies and no souls, and, at best, their minds are contractual agreements.

The fiction of “corporate personhood” making decisions that rightly belong to women about their own bodies, minds and spirits exposes how far we are from being able to value physicality as much as spirituality.

We are very close, however, to corporations taking over the definition of “We the People.”



About Susan Thistlethwaite

I am President Emerita and Professor Emerita of Chicago Theological Seminary; I write for the public here and in local papers. I am interested in what I call "public theology," or how deeper meaning is made and contested in the public square.
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2 Responses to Can corporations get pregnant?

  1. Gary Roberts says:

    I’m reading this moments after listening to an NPR story pointing out that the issue before the court is about whether corporate “people” can, in addition to first-amendment speech rights, can have first-amendment rights of religious freedom. Thank you, Susan, for your always clear-eyed statement of the underlying issue of who the heck “we the people” really is – corporations or women. I’m also wondering what society gets in return for authorizing corporate structures as legal fictions. People that choose corporate structure for their business activity get different tax treatment and a shield from personal liability. How in the world does it benefit the commonwealth to also extend first amendment rights of any kind to people that can easily choose to do business as real people, not as legal fictions that governments create, presumably for reasons of commerce rather than as political platforms of the owners.

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