An egg, not a person

An egg, not a person

November 8th, 2011 in Opinion Times

POLL: Do you believe fertilized human eggs are human beings?

Mississippi voters are considered likely to approve a statewide ballot measure today that would define fertilized human eggs as distinct human beings with all the pertinent legal rights of people. Passage of Amendment 26, however, would be a mistake, one with wide-ranging and negative consequences.

If it passes, the amendment would turn women's reproductive rights under the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling upside down, treat abortion as murder, make the "morning after" pill and some other forms of contraception illegal, and ignite another momentous Supreme Court battle over women's right to choose.

Passage of the "personhood" amendment, the most extreme proposal in the anti-abortion movement's right-wing arsenal, would have other significant consequences, as well.

Though its advocates suggest otherwise, it would threaten the practice of fertility treatments and in-vitro fertilization, which commonly destroys or freezes fertilized eggs, and endanger the use of contraception to prevent implantation of a fertilized egg. It would set boundaries for care, and thereby threaten, medical care of pregnant women, and medical research involving embryos.

The extreme amendment, moreover, would ban abortion in Mississippi even in cases of rape and incest, on the belief of some evangelicals that God, not rapists, makes babies. It also would make pregnant women subject to more criminal violations involving their care of fertilized eggs and embryos and the potential damage of adverse or unhealthy lifestyles.

Among its other unintended consequences, it could also alter legal views on a range of existing laws involving persons, including those over the distribution of assets under wills to surviving heirs, the use of Census data for a range of federal programs, and the population basis for voting districts.

No other state has passed an amendment defining the personhood of fertilized eggs. Two attempts at similar amendments in Colorado, in 2008 and 2010, drew less than 10 percent of voters in favor of personhood status for fertilized eggs. But according to polls in Mississippi, a majority of likely voters say they intend to approve Amendment 26. In fact, popular sentiment for adoption has been so strong that both the Republican and the Democratic candidates for governor say they plan to vote in favor of the amendment.

If advocates succeed in passing the measure, their success could fuel introduction of copy-cat amendments in other states, re-igniting a broader cultural conflict that had seemed to settle on incremental steps at the margin of abortions by both opponents and advocates of women's reproductive rights.

The anti-abortion movement in recent years has focused on restrictions on abortion -- i.e., mandatory wait times, parental notification, funding for public services for women -- rather than repeal. Women's advocates, by contrast, have worked for improved family planning, education, contraceptive and pre-natal care to promote healthier, more aware, young women and mothers.

The timebomb that is Amendment 26 could radically alter the landscape on abortion in another unintended way. It could backfire on anti-abortion extremists by forcing an ideological battle onto the Supreme Court. Having already been decided, that should compel the court to declare the amendment unconstitutional and to restrict subsequent hindrances to the abortion rights it has previously confirmed. If Amendment 26 is approved, this is what should happen in its wake.