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Duly Noted

Wednesday, Oct 26, 2011, 9:34 am

The Scrambled Logic of the Egg-As-Person Movement

By Lindsay Beyerstein

A 5-day-old embryo, awaiting IVF.   Prescott Pimm, Creative Commons.

On November 8, Mississippians will vote on Initiative 26, a proposed amendment to the state constitution would redefine a fertilized egg as a person. Both the Republican and Democratic candidates for governor have come out in favor of the measure.

Officially, the personhood movement is an attempt to ban all abortion without overturning Roe v. Wade. Unofficially, declaring fertilized eggs to be people is also the first step towards criminalizing hormonal birth control, IUDs, and in vitro fertilization.

The personhood movement asserts that fertilized egg is a person, not a potential person, but a full-fledged human being with the same rights as men, women, and children. These activists literally believe that an egg is endowed with full human rights the moment that it combines with a sperm, in the body or in a dish.

A fertilized ovum is no more a person than a recipe for a cake is a cake. Fertilization is the moment when an embryo's genetic blueprint is completed. That's biologically fascinating, but morally irrelevant. A fertilized ovum cannot feel, it cannot think, it cannot react to its environment. We have no obligations towards it whatsoever.

What defines a person is an interesting philosophical question. Could marine biologists discover that dolphins are persons? Could a hyper-intelligent slime mold from space with advanced language and culture be a person (or persons)? Whatever you think the criteria for personhood should be, fertilization is an obvious non-starter.

People have desires and preferences that must be taken into account. A fertilized egg is a fascinating little machine for building a person; but it doesn't want anything. It has no conception of its own existence and no preferences about existing or not. Under the right conditions, it will do what it is programmed to do, but we don't owe it anything.

Declaring embryos to be full-fledged people makes every fertile woman a potential target for state scrutiny. If fertilized eggs are people, and the state has an interest in protecting all people, every fertile woman is a potential secret killer.

Bizarrely, if eggs are people, the mere capacity to get pregnant opens women up to state scrutiny. You never know when a fertilized egg might want to use your uterus, and the Mississippi fertilization fetishists expect you to have the welcome mat out 24/7.

Personhood activists in Mississippi didn't have their stories straight when Irin Carmon of Salon questioned them how Initiative 26 would affect contraception, IVF, or women's freedom.

One pro-personhood doctor in Mississippi claims that birth control pills cause abortions, Carmon reports. This is a deception twice over. It's illustrative of the moral an intellectual bankruptcy of the personhood movement.

First off, birth control pills act primarily by inhibiting ovulation. Over time, birth control pills thin the lining of the uterus. It has been hypothesized that a thinner endometrium is less receptive to fertilized eggs, but this conjecture has never been tested. This seems unlikely, given how easy it is for women to get pregnant by taking the birth control pill sporadically. Missing a couple of pills won't undo the chronic changes in the uterine lining, but skipping pills during the critical window can easily allow an egg to escape. If a thinner endometrium was such a barrier to pregnancy, we'd expect the pill to be even more reliable than it is.

The second deception is the Mississippi doctor's covert redefinition of "abortion." She learned in medical school that pregnancy begins after an embryo implants in the uterus. If pregnancy began at fertilization, every IVF clinic could claim a 100% pregnancy rate because every client walks out with at least one fertilized embryo in her reproductive tract.

We know the birth control pill does not kill implanted embryos. It is not an abortefacient. This attempt to redefine medical terms is intellectually dishonest. How dare this doctor try to scare women off a birth control method that prevents fertilization on the unproven hunch that it might keep a fertilized egg from implanting?

Moreover, how dare she use newspeak to redefine abortion? The doctor is emotionally blackmailing anti-choice women who use contraception by implying that they could be murderers.

The doctor's twisted logic has totalitarian implications. She's saying that women not only have a moral responsibility to carry pregnancies to term, but also to keep their bodies in the best possible shape to get pregnant. If you follow her reasoning to its logical conclusion, anything that might make the womb less receptive to fertilized eggs is possibly abortion, and therefore potentially murder. Maybe a woman could plead down to manslaughter if she didn't realize that her high-stress job reduced her endometrial receptivity and caused the deaths of fertilized embryos.

It's not clear whether the courts or the legislature would agree with the doctor that failing to allow a fertilized embryo to implant in your womb is murder or manslaughter. This is uncharted legal territory. In the real world, you're not obliged to open your door to anyone who knocks, even though they are a person.

However, if a fertilized egg is a really a person, and we grant that letting a fertilized egg die is the wrongful killing of a human being, any woman with an IUD is a serial killer. After all, IUDs prevent fertilized eggs from implanting in the uterus. Here's where I call bullshit. Even the most devout proponents of personhood don't really think that a woman with an IUD is morally equivalent to Arsenic Annie.

Some personhood boosters will admit they seek to criminalize IUDs but nobody really believes that IUD wearers are murderers. If Initiative 26 passes, will they seek the death penalty (or life in prison, if they're anti-captial punishment) for IUD wearers and the doctors who install them? If not, they're not serious about this egg-as-person schtick.

How many of these personhood people would defend saving a vial of embryos from a fire instead of a 4-year-old child? If you really think that IVF embryos are people, you have a moral obligation to let one 4-year-old burn to death in order to save dozens of egg-people. Right? You never get a straight answer from the personhood people on this question. Or, as Carmon discovered, on any substantive questions about their agenda or its implications.

Imbuing fertilized eggs with rights isn't a serious philosophical position, it's a convenient rhetorical tactic to justify subjugating women.

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

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