A case of an IS bride’s newborn child raises questions of citizenship, personhood and agency.
You probably haven’t heard of Marshae Jones. Last December, she was arrested after a shooting at a convenience store in Pleasant Grove, a small town in Alabama. Jones, who was pregnant at the time, was shot in the stomach. She recovered, but the unborn child didn’t survive. The shooter, Ebony Jemison, was initially charged with murder, later adjusted to manslaughter. The fight was over the unborn baby’s father. Crucially, Jones started it.
Why crucially? “The mother’s involvement and culpability will be presented to a grand jury to determine if she also will be charged in the incident,” declared police officer Lieutenant Danny Reid, adding that “When a 5-month pregnant woman initiates a fight and attacks another person, I believe some responsibility lies with her as to any injury to her unborn child.” Reid concluded that was that there was only one victim in the affair: “That child is dependent on its mother to try to keep it from harm, and she shouldn’t seek out unnecessary physical altercations.”
UK readers will most certainly have heard of Shamima Begum. An East Londoner, she left Britain in 2014 to join the Islamic State (IS) as a jihadi bride, aged just 15. After losing two consecutive children because of the cruel and severe conditions in the former IS stronghold of Raqqa, she became pregnant with a third. Tracked down by The Times team at the al-Hawl refugee camp in Syria a week ago, Begum, then nine months pregnant, has appealed to the British government to allow her to return to her own birthplace to give birth and raise her child, in the words of the family lawyer “away from ISIS thinking.”
Begum has since given birth, and the nation is divided over whether she should be allowed back into the UK after more than four years of life in an environment and culture that is hostile to the UK and among people who are openly opposed to Western ways of life.
Begum’s family has asserted that “As a British citizen, Shamima has every expectation to be returned to the UK and be dealt with under the British justice system.” At the moment it’s not clear how justice would be served. The new Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill, which will grant greater powers to crackdown on hostile state activity, will not apply to Begum retrospectively.
The British government has the power to deprive a person of citizenship if it decides the action would be “conducive to the public good.” However, it can’t render someone stateless. It’s not even clear if Begum has actually committed an offence at all. Britons who leave the UK for IS-controlled territory are usually not welcomed back, particularly if they are known to have engaged in fighting allied forces or terrorist-related activities, which will be punishable by up to 10 years in prison under the new legislation. The response to their family members is less clear-cut. It is thought that Scotland Yard’s counterterrorism command has studied whether Shamima Begum was involved in activity that makes her “a danger to British national security or would constitute an offence that she could be charged with in the UK.”
Some argue that she was manipulated at an impressionable age and has now matured enough to mend her ways. The trouble is that she shows no apparent remorse. Speaking to Sky News, Begum said: “In a way, yes, but I don’t regret it because it’s changed me as a person. It’s made me stronger, tougher. I married my husband. I wouldn’t have found someone like him back in the UK.” There is also a question over her complicity in the transition to Syria. Those who insist she was in some way “brainwashed” are criticized for not crediting her with intelligence and decision-making agency.
But while much of the debate centers around Begum herself, considering the rights of her newborn invites us to venture along a different narrative. Since the mother is a British national, the child will technically be British and should, by extension, have a right to be brought up on British soil, have access to the NHS, go to school in Britain and participate fully in the welfare state.
Whether the mother committed acts of treason against the British government by voluntarily leaving for Syria and aligning herself with an enemy of many Western nations, including Britain, is, in a sense, irrelevant. A child, especially when still in its mother’s womb, is innocent and in danger of becoming a victim. Perhaps not a victim to the same extent as Marshae Jones’ unborn child, but a victim in the sense that its life chances will be overwhelmingly determined by the actions of its mother.
It’s too easy to argue that the British government’s responsibility should be to the child and its duty to protect that child regardless of the transgressions the mother. But this presumes the child would theoretically prefer to be born, live and mature in an environment its mother found repugnant — or at least did in 2014.
Obviously a child has no cognitive capacity to choose where to be born and grow. Those who point out that the child is innocent seem to presume life in East London would be preferable to Syria. It could also be argued, at least theoretically — I know of no one who has advanced this view — that were the child born and allowed to develop among the Islamic State, he would see life very differently and repudiate the infidels his mother left behind. The unborn child will be shaped by whichever circumstances he is born into. All of which prompts us to wonder whether personhood is appropriately conferred on unborn children.
The concept of personhood is under constant revision. I’m going to define it straightforwardly as the quality or condition of being an individual human being. A society that accommodates a legal understanding of fetal personhood has to face some uncomfortable implications. If a woman chooses to smoke and drink during pregnancy, and the child is born prematurely and underweight, is the mother responsible for the child’s health? What if a mother exercises too vigorously or runs ultra-marathons or travels abroad to work for humanitarian causes? There was a fictional, but reality-like, case on Coronation Street recently, in which a pregnant woman with cancer refused to undergo radiotherapy in order to save her child. She endangered herself, of course. But she could have opted for the therapy and jeopardized the child’s chances of survival. Would she then be morally, if not legally, culpable?
If so, then we are bestowing rights on fetuses. This takes us very close to a zero-sum situation in which whatever is gained by one side is lost by the other: Pregnant mothers lose autonomy as people in almost direct proportion to the rights we confer on unborn children.
Rebalancing of Power
There’s been a rebalancing of power when it comes to human reproduction. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the interests of mother and fetus are exactly the same. But every so often, a case like Shamima Begum’s challenges us to determine whose interest is best served by a decision. The British state is now struggling with this question: If it’s in the child’s best interests to grow up in Britain, should it prioritize those interests and admit Begum? If it decides to stick with a traditional conception of human individuality and refuse to confer this capacity on a newborn child, then it will assert that it has no legal or moral duty to allow Begum’s return.
At the moment, human beings in Britain acquire legal personhood when they are born. In other jurisdictions, a being has rights even before birth. Begum’s case came to light only days before she gave birth to her son. Some insist that an embryo in the first trimester (from conception to about the 12th week of pregnancy) should be treated legally in exactly the same way as a fetus in the final stages of pregnancy. This seems a tenuous argument, though one that challenges us to determine at what cycle of pregnancy does a being deserve if not personhood, then at least some recognition of rights.
But consider: If the government determines the child has rights and freedoms comparable to, if not commensurate with, other humans, then it will segue into philosophical water. If a government can intercede to protect the best interests of a fetus, how might those opposed to abortion and the miscellany of women’s right associated with it turn this to their advantage?
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.