Personhood – Beyond Abortion

As you may have heard, the North Dakota legislature passed a Personhood Measure that would define life as beginning at conception. It’s not in force yet, but it will be if the people of North Dakota pass a referendum making this measure an amendment to the state constitution. I hope that the citizens of North Dakota follow the wise lead of the citizens of Colorado and Mississippi and reject this overly-broad measure.

I’m not alone in this. Even many pro-life Republicans oppose this measure. Why? And why did deep red Mississippi reject it?

They reject this because it’s more than an abortion bill – it’s a sledgehammer with large negative side effects.

Here are some of the open questions created by declaring that human rights start at conception:

  1. What happens to in vitro fertilization? If we declare that personhood begins at the point of fertilization, then we’re creating fully-legal humans in test tubes. IVF has been used for decades to give families loved and wanted children, and by this point the process is no longer very controversial. What does this mean for the future of that procedure? Should we stop using it to create loving families?
  2. What happens to contraception with this law? The Pill works primarily through preventing fertilization, but a secondary effect is to suppress implantation of fertilized eggs. Would this amendment mean that we need to get rid of the Pill because a secondary effect would be considered “murder”? What about women who use the Pill for other medical issues? What about Norplant? IUDs?
  3. What would happen in response to miscarriages if this were to pass? A large percentage of implanted pregnancies spontaneously abort – would those now have to be considered deaths that need to investigated by coroners? Should grieving would-be mothers be interrogated by detectives?
  4. What about fertilized eggs that never implant? A large percentage of conceptions never implant without any medical intervention, without the woman or her body ever becoming aware of the fertilization. Since the amendment would require us to consider these cases the death of a person, what does that mean for sexually-active fertile women? Should we start examining tampons and pads looking for blastocysts to be able to start the funeral and/or legal proceedings?
  5. Relatedly, what does this mean for the daily lives of sexually-active fertile women? Since they might have a fertilized egg inside them without knowing it at nearly any point in their lives, does the state have a compelling interest in preventing them from any activity that might harm an embryo that might or might not exist? How much do we regulate the lives of millions of women on the chance that there might be an invisible “person” with equal rights within her body?
  6. What would the be implications on women with ectopic pregnancies? I know women who had embryos implant in their fallopian tubes, a situation that was unsustainable for the embryo, but also was life-threatening for the women. They had to have surgery to remove the incorrect implantation to save the lives of the women – should that procedure now be banned because it kills a “person”? Even though that “person” would die anyway in the process of killing its mother?
  7. If personhood starts at conception instead of birth, that means that there’s only one person per blastocyst; what about identical twins? Since they get the rights of only one person, who gets to vote?

Whether or not you think that women should have the right to decide for themselves to end or proceed with a pregnancy, these points bring up problems with this approach to stopping abortion. The Personhood approach is a sledgehammer that imperils IVF, contraception, life-saving medical procedures, and the everyday lives of women as side effects of a bad idea.

I made comments similar to these on a couple of places on Facebook, and the responses I got were sad and predictable: “Abortion is always bad”, “stem cells don’t work” (though I never mentioned them), “you are morally bankrupt”, etc. And in both places, my comment was deleted without any of my points being addressed. There was no willingness to consider that using such a broad approach was a bad idea. Very disappointing.

In summary, even if you oppose abortion rights, you should oppose Personhood Measures because they violate the Constitution, medical science, the rights of independent women, and the ability for a secular society not to be ruled by the beliefs of a minority of adherents of one particular religion.

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About Lance Finney

Father of two boys, Java developer, Ethical Humanist, and world traveler (when I can sneak it in). Contributor to Grounded Parents.
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3 Responses to Personhood – Beyond Abortion

  1. johnmcg says:

    So we should base our conclusion on this on the possibility of negative implications to our way of life rather than science.

    Sounds familiar.

    • Lance Finney says:

      How do you get that from what I said? In what way am I opposing the conclusions of science in my objection to these bills?

      But yes, we should balance positive effects and negative effects of our actions before making them. I don’t know why that would be controversial.

    • Lance Finney says:

      To be more explicit, the decision to accord human rights to a blastocyst, zygote, embryo, or fetus is not a scientific decision; it can’t be. Science can inform that debate, but it’s laws, philosophy, values, and politics that would make that decision.

      In this case, the belief in ensoulment of a fertilized egg is a religious notion, not a scientific conclusion.

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