Monday, October 13, 2008

Personhood for Zygotes!

Photo of billboard spotted in Cleveland by Flickr user Austin Kleon, used under a Creative Commons license.

I'm betting most of you have heard that Leslee Unruh is taking another crack at effectively outlawing abortion in South Dakota. But only very recently did I hear about a ballot initiative in Colorado that's equally loony. Julie at A Little Bit Pregnant describes it thus:
Next month Coloradoans will vote on whether to amend their state Constitution "to include the pre-born from the moment of fertilization as having their 'personhood' clearly established."

This description comes from Colorado for Equal Rights, the force behind proposed amendment 48, "Equal Rights" in this case being as much of a creepy buzzwordy misnomer as "pre-born." The thrust of the measure, say its supporters, is "to define a person in Colorado as a human being from the moment of fertilization."
Oy. There's so much wrong with this, and I have so little time. (I'm slowly digging through 80 essays that demand to be graded.) But just for starters:

Your average zygote will not implant, and that sorta puts a crimp in its personhood. At the Berkshire Conference last summer, I learned the following from Lara Friedenfels' presentation (and this is my paraphrase, not hers):
Of 100 meetings of egg and sperm, 57 never implant (and thus wouldn't result in a positive test). Of the 43 that do implant, 10 miscarry before a doctor would declare the woman pregnant. ... Of the 33 that continue, 4 will miscarry "clinically" and 29 will reach full term (give or take a few weeks).
What does this Colorado initiative plan to do to save those 57 persons who are shed before they ever implant?

Do the backers of this initiative care that implantation, not fertilization, is the medically recognized start of pregnancy?

Have they considered that whether fertilization has occurred is unknowable until sometime after implantation, and thus the existence of such "persons" will be completely speculative until post-implantation?

Are Colorado voters aware that if this measure passes, it won't just call legal abortion into question, it would lay the groundwork for potentially outlawing many forms of contraception, stem cell research and therapies, and infertility treatments, as Julie points out?

I have no problem granting that life begins at implantation, or even at fertilization. I'll grant, too, that it's human. After all, it's human DNA that starts to replicate, and keeps replicating - barring failure to implant, or miscarriage, or incompatible-with-life developmental anomalies, or the formation of a molar pregnancy ... As Lara's statistics show, this is a precarious process and less than a third of fertilized eggs result in an actual baby. I would never belittle the significance of pregnancy loss, but surely none of us would equate a hydatidiform mole with a person?

Isn't it possible to grant that the zygote is human and alive, without erasing its very real differences from a social or legal person?

How about if we instead take a developmental perspective and recognize that while an embryo is not nothing, it's also not a person? It's a clump of cells with amazing potential that - with some luck, if all goes well - will attain full personhood when it leaves its mother's body. No more. And no less.


Diana Hsieh said...

Thank you for your opposition to Amendment 48!

You might be interested to read an issue paper published by the Coalition for Secular Government: "Amendment 48 Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters That a Fertilized Egg Is Not a Person" by Ari Armstrong and myself. It's available at:

We discuss some of the serious implications of this proposed amendment, such as:

* Amendment 48 would make abortion first-degree murder, except perhaps to save the woman's life. First-degree murder is defined in Colorado law as deliberately causing the death of a "person," a crime punished by life in prison or the death penalty. So women and their doctors would be punished with the severest possible penalty under law for terminating a pregnancy -- even in cases of rape, incest, and fetal deformity.

* Amendment 48 would ban any form of birth control that might sometimes prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterus -- including the birth control pill, morning-after pill, and IUD. The result would be many more unintended pregnancies and unwanted children in Colorado.

* Amendment 48 would ban in vitro fertilization because the process usually creates more fertilized eggs than can be safely implanted in the womb. So every year, hundreds of Colorado couples would be denied the joy of a child of their own.

Our paper also develops a strong defense of abortion rights -- not based on vague appeals to "choice" or "privacy" -- but on the fact that neither an embryo nor fetus qualifies as a person with a right to life.

An embryo or fetus is wholly dependent on the woman for its basic life-functions. It goes where she goes, eats what she eats, and breathes what she breathes. It lives as an extension of her body, contained within and dependent on her for its survival. It is only a potential person, not an actual person.

That situation changes radically at birth. The newborn baby exists as a distinct organism, separate from his mother. Although still very needy, he lives his own life. He is a person, and his life must be protected as a matter of right.

So, we argue, when a woman chooses to terminate a pregnancy she does not violate the rights of any person. Instead, she is properly exercising her own rights over her own body in pursuit of her own happiness. Moreover, in most cases, she is acting morally and responsibly by doing so.

Again, the URL for the paper is:

The sad fact is that Amendment 48 is based on sectarian religious dogma, not objective science or philosophy. It is a blatant attempt to impose theocracy in America. That's definitely a scary thought.

Thanks again for speaking up about it -- and my apologies for writing such a huge comment.

Diana Hsieh
Founder, Coalition for Secular Government

Sungold said...

Diana - Wow! Thanks so much for this wonderful summary of your paper. If you don't mind, I'm boosting it up into a post of its own.

My, I hope Colorado voters will be smart enough to reject this amendment so decisively that it won't reappear anytime soon.