Personhood and Consequences

This Tuesday, voters in Mississippi will have to decide a very strange question: should newly-fertilized zygotes have the same rights as human beings? The outcome may very well herald the future of women’s reproductive health in America. Initiative 26 would amend the state’s constitution to define a person as “every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.” This so-called “personhood amendment” is part of a nationwide campaign by the radical anti-abortion group Personhod USA and its state affiliates. The measure is a transparent attempt to outlaw abortion, but it goes much further than that, criminalizing everything from common forms of birth control to in vitro fertilization — even preventing doctors from saving women’s lives. Personhood USA freely admits that these consequences are part of its far-reaching agenda to effectively eliminate any meaningful control women have over their own fertility. The effects of the personhood laws advancing in several states could touch the lives of virtually every woman in America.

Bye-bye Birth Control: Although the medical community has long been in agreement that fertilization does not mark the beginning of a pregnancy — fertilized eggs must first be implanted, and only about half of fertilized eggs actually result in a pregnancy — a startling number of lawmakers nationwide are supporting Personhood USA’s efforts to buck medical expertise and legally define life as the moment a sperm meets an egg. Mississippi’s Initiative 26 would turn common forms of birth control into the legal equivalent of homicide. That’s because contraceptives like birth control pills and intrauterine devices (IUDs) not only act to prevent fertilization, but if fertilization does occur, may prevent that fertilized egg from implanting in a woman’s uterus. In short, the legislation would turn the at least 13 million American women who use these forms of birth control into criminals. Also at risk of prosecution would be the millions of women whose fertilized eggs never begin dividing, never implant, or implant but spontaneously abort — assuming such events could be proven. This often happens so early on that the woman never even knows she might have been pregnant. Personhood USA has been very open about its desire to outlaw birth control. It’s a self-defeating move for an anti-abortion group, given that increasing access to birth control is the single most effective way to reduce abortions.

Jeopardizing Life: A horrific irony of this so-called “pro-life” legislation is that it could actually threaten the lives of millions of women. Because personhood laws would make any effort to terminate a pregnancy a criminal act, it could bar doctors from saving the lives of women with ectopic pregnancies, which are never viable and need to be terminated as soon as possible. Doctors could also be helpless to save women who have had incomplete miscarriages and need abortions to prevent deadly infections and complications. Additionally, the measure could prevent couples from conceiving children through in vitro fertilization (IVF) — an outcome Personhood USA welcomes. IVF has helped countless couples struggling with infertility to get pregnant, and around 58,000 American IVF babies are born each year. But the process often involves the discarding of unused embryos, which the new law would prohibit. At the very least, the measure would drastically change how IVF is practiced, making it less effective and more dangerous. Mississippi women are scrambling to start their IVF procedures before Tuesday’s vote, and doctors report fielding panicked calls from their patients. The personhood movement that claims to want to stop the “destruction of life” may, in fact, destroy many women’s lives, and prevent new life from being created.

Ten Steps Too Far: Personhood legislation advancing in Mississippi and other states is an all-out assault on the idea that women should have any control over their own fertility. It confers the full and complete rights of United States citizens onto two-celled zygotes, and prioritizes their well-being over that of millions of women. The Mississippi measure has such far-reaching consequences that even many anti-abortion activists are speaking out against it. James Bopp, general counsel for the National Right to Life Committee, warns in a memo that personhood laws jeopardize the aims of the anti-abortion movement by making them defend extreme positions that most Americans oppose. Many religious leaders, including Catholic bishops in several states, have refused to endorse the amendment. Rabbi Debra Kassoff put it this way: “Because God has sanctified not only fetal life, but all life, we urge Mississippians to vote against Initiative 26.” Personhood USA has pledged to take its fight to all 50 states, and aims to get proposals on ballots in nearly half of them by 2012. But tomorrow’s vote is widely seen as a bellwether of the course of women’s reproductive rights and health in coming years.

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Advocacy Team