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Duly Noted

Tuesday, Nov 15, 2011, 7:01 am

Birth Control and IVF Trumped “Personhood” in Mississippi

By Lindsay Beyerstein

Spike Walker, Wellcome Images, Creative Commons, images.wellcome.ac.uk.

The New York Times has a flawed but interesting take on why Mississippi voters decisively rejected a proposed constitutional amendment to redefine a fertilized egg as a person.

According to reporter Denise Grady, the sweepingly-worded constitutional amendment went too far, even in the eyes of Mississippi's generally conservative, anti-choice electorate.

Early polling showed the egg-as-person amendment leading by 30 points, but on election night, 58% of voters rejected the measure. What made the difference, according to Grady, was grassroots opposition by people like Atlee Breland. Breland, a mother of three, was galvanized to resist Initiative 26 because it would have severely restricted in vitro fertilization, a technology that helped Breland conceive her twin daughters.

Grady's reporting fits with other reports from Mississippi that attribute the demise of Initiative 26 to the well-founded fears of ordinary citizens that the measure would ban IVF and popular forms of birth control and complicate medical treatment during high-risk pregnancies.

In fact, some of the most prominent supporters of Initiative 26 were quite upfront about the fact that the measure would ban birth control pills.

Ironically, for a story about the importance of medical nuances, Grady's piece uncritically repeats one of the most egregious anti-choice talking points:

The amendment’s supporters acknowledge that it would have banned not just abortions, but anything that could prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus, effectively barring some birth control methods, like IUDs, morning-after pills and a contraceptive pill called the “mini-pill” that contains only progestin.

Whether the amendment would also have banned standard birth control pills, which contain both estrogen and progestin, became a matter of debate. Those pills work mainly by preventing ovulation — a mechanism that is acceptable, supporters of the amendment say. However, the standard pills may also alter the uterine lining so that, in rare cases in which a woman on the pill ovulates and the egg is fertilized, it will not implant.

The possibility that the pills and other hormonal birth control can prevent implantation makes them “chemical abortifacients,” according to some anti-abortion groups.

Unfortunately, the he said/she said norms of newspaper reporting have given the anti-choicers another chance to misinform the public. Grady notes that anti-abortion groups say that the possibility that birth control pills might prevent fertilized eggs from implanting makes them "chemical abortifacients." That's what they say, but it's false.

This is an Orwellian redefinition of abortion by the anti-choicers. Even if the birth control pill did prevent fertilized eggs from implanting, which it probably doesn't, it wouldn't be an abortefacient. An abortion presupposes a pregnancy. A woman is not pregnant until a fertilized ovum implants in her uterus and begins sending chemical signals into her bloodstream.

Anti-choicers have covertly redefined fertilization as pregnancy, in direct opposition to the standard medical definition. This is nothing short of emotional blackmail. As we learned in Mississippi, there are plenty of anti-choice but pro-contraception women. Telling these women, falsely, that their birth control pills are causing abortions is unconscionable.

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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