THE “PERSONHOOD” THREAT
By Don C. Reed
“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” — Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll (1)
“Personhood” is a political opinion: that a fertilized human egg is a person — and therefore has full rights and protections under law. (2)
Which is, of course, nonsense. A fertilized egg (a blastocyst or embryo) is not a person, and can never become one — unless it is implanted in the mother’s womb. Without implantation, it is biologically impossible to make a baby. An un-implanted blastocyst is living tissue, not a life. (3)
But if we pretend that a blastocyst is a person, and write that fantaasy into law, some very real side effects may occur.
One: The use of birth control pills may be prohibited. If a fertilized egg is a person, then anything which kills it is murder. Note: Excuse my bluntness, but we are talking about the contents of a tampon. Many married women shed an embryo during their monthly cycle, and think nothing of it.
But if that dot of living tissue was an actual person? It could not be subjected to chemicals which kill it — including birth control pills.
Vast numbers of married women (Estimates vary from a low of 40% to a high of 99%!) have used or will use “the pill” for birth control. If killing a fertilized egg is “murder”, are we criminalizing a gender? (4)
Two: The In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) procedure may be banned, or burdened with crippling restrictions. IVF has helped more than five million couples in the struggle to make families. Why would it be attacked in any way?
The donor couple contributes sperm and egg. In a dish of salt water, the healthiest 15 or 20 eggs and sperm are brought together, now blastocysts. Two or three will be surgically implanted.
What happens to the other fertilized eggs, the non-implanted “left-overs”? At present, that is up to the donors. Their blastocysts may be frozen and stored for future use, given to other couples, donated to science — or discarded.
But if blastocysts are classified as people, they cannot legally be discarded. So if 20 are made, and two are used, where do the other 18 go?
“If a law is written to establish personhood of a fertilized egg or an embryo, then discarding an embryo would violate that law. It would be considered homicide,” said Priscilla Smith, director of the Program for the Study of Reproductive Justice at Yale Law School. (5)
If the personhood theory is taken seriously, the IVF procedure must be banned; or endure crippling restrictions — like requiring that every fertilized egg be implanted, as Nadia Sulemon did. The “octomom” (6) had 8 fertilized eggs. She insisted on implanting every one — and had eight children at once, the world’s first octuplets. Would anyone seriously want to implant ten or twenty blastocyst — all to be carried to term?
Three: If discarded blastocysts cannot be donated to science, this would be a blow to embryonic stem cell research, which offers the possibility of cures to potentially millions of Americans suffering blindness, paralysis, leukemia or other forms of chronic disease or disability. (7)
What progress might be lost, if research rights should be denied?
One type of blindness is retinitis pigmentosa: in safety trials, one young woman, legally blind, was given embryonic stem cells. She recovered sufficient vision to do her own makeup, read books — and see her children. (8)
With spinal injections of embryonic stem cells, newly-paralyzed quadriplegics recovered control of hands and arms, so they required less attendant care. (9)
Leukemia, frequently fatal, may be fought with an off-the-shelf embryonic stem cell treatment. (10)
The need for top-flight medicine is immense. Last year America spent roughly $3.7 trillion on chronic disease and disability. (11) No nation can afford such a mountain of medical debt, let alone the suffering which comes with it.
When the public is allowed to vote, personhood bills are usually defeated, as they were in Colorado, Mississippi, and North Dakota. (12)
So why worry?
In “red states”, personhood laws (almost exclusively Republican) may be imposed by the state’s legislature, without the public having a vote.
So how do we guard stem cell research?
In California, our stem cell program is enshrined in the state Constitution, hopefully a shield against personhood laws. (13) But if one state program is safe, what about the other 49? What about national research? And with the ultra-conservative Supreme Court in power now, do we not have reason to be concerned?
Personhood could ban advanced stem cell research, the IVF procedure, and the birth control pill — as well as removing a woman’s freedom of choice, now under threat in numerous states — is this the America we want?
I think not.
As reaction grows, “personhood politcians” may try to hide what they are doing, by altering their website. They may erase the word “personhood” altogether. But watch for substitute language like “conception”, or “fertilization”, as in “full rights and protection begin at”…
“…the (federal) Life at Conception Act would extend… (to) embryos a constitutional “right to life” beginning at the moment of fertilization. (This bill) had 164 cosponsors in the U. S. House of Representatives…”* (14)
Vigilance is required on our part, and effort. We must know what is going on, and be part of the process. If a personhood bill is being considered in your state, contact your Senator or Representative. Be heard, as is your right.
And finally, a leap back into the past…
August 4, 2005: I was in the Alameda County courthouse when the California stem cell program was sued by an alleged embryo, titled Mary Scott Doe. (15)
That “plaintiff” was found by the judge to have no standing in the case, and the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) prevailed. (16)
Under personhood law, the outcome could have been very different.
Representatives of a fictitious embryo might have actually been allowed to sue California’s magnificent stem cell research program. (17)
Personhood! It threatens the reproductive rights of women, the hopes of childless couples, and all our dreams of cure.