PoliticsReproductive Rights

Personhood Nonsense! Next Stop – Missouri!

The Missouri legislature has been on a roll recently, considering anti-LGBT “religious freedom” bills  and threatening to hold the head of the local Planned Parenthood leader in contempt unless she produces documents that could violate federal HIPAA privacy protections for her patients. Less publicized has been an effort to pass a Personhood Measure. If this bill passes, the people of Missouri could amend the state constitution via referendum to define life as beginning at conception. I hope that the Missouri legislators or the citizens of my state follow the wise lead of the citizens of ColoradoMississippi, and North Dakota and reject this overly-broad measure.

Why? And why did deep red Mississippi and North Dakota 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? About 15%-20% of implanted pregnancies spontaneously abort – would those now have to be considered deaths that need to be investigated by coroners? Should grieving would-be mothers be interrogated by detectives?
  4. Sign from Protest After Savita Halappanavar Died Due to Personhood-Style Laws
    Sign Protesting Savita Halappanavar’s Death Due to Personhood-Style Laws
  5. What about fertilized eggs that never implant? According to one study, about 22% of fertilized eggs never implant, even when there is no medical intervention to prevent it. In many cases the woman (and her body) are never even 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?
  6. 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 undetectable “person” with equal rights within her body?
  7. What would be the implications on women with ectopic pregnancies? Someone very close to me had an embryo implant in her fallopian tubes, a situation that was unsustainable for the embryo, but also was life-threatening for the woman. She had to have surgery to remove the incorrect implantation to save her life – 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? Does the doomed embryo have more of a right to life than the children she was able to have successfully after that attempt?
  8. 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 (and I firmly believe that women have the right to bodily autonomy), 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.

So, 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.

Featured Image credit: RebelAt
Note: Large portions of this post were published previously on my personal blog.


Lance is the father of two boys, a software developer, and an occasional world traveler. Now an active member of the Ethical Society of St. Louis, he grew up in an Evangelical Lutheran home in which he took Christianity very seriously. Fortunately, going to college helped him break through to see that he believed because he thought he was supposed to, not because it makes sense. Now he's glad to be more than just a SIWOTI skeptic. @LMFinney

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One Comment

  1. I don’t think I’ve had a personhood argument with “the other side” where they bothered to define what they meant by “person” in a meaningful sense to me.  It makes it really hard to “agree to disagree”.

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