06 November 2011

When fertilizations are "persons," miscarriages are homicides

Photo: a human blastocyst, formed about 5 days after a spermatazoon has fertilized an egg cell. Or, in Mississippi, an American citizen with a full complement of civil rights.

So both the Democratic and Republican candidates for governor in Mississippi have gone on record supporting passage of the fetal personhood initiative in that state. The state attorney general says he'll enforce it, too; and Mitt Romney has said in the past that he "absolutely" supports fetal personhood ballot measures. But I wonder if they're all fully on board with the very realistic consequences of such a law if it goes into effect.

Mississippi's Initiative Measure No. 26, if successful, will amend the state's constitution to "define[ the word person] to include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the equivalent thereof[.]" So it would attach the full legal rights of a "person" to not just a fetus at the point of extra-uterine viability, and not just pre-viability, but to pre-fetus stage. Pre-embryo stage, pre-blastocyst stage, pre-morula stage, pre-zygote stage. It attaches full legal "person" rights to the instant that fertilization happens and there is a conceptus.

I don't see how this law can be uniformly enforced without monthly pregnancy tests of all fertile women in the state of Mississippi. I'm not being facetious here. (If I were being facetious, I'd ask if the rabbit industry lobby were behind Measure 26.) It's a serious question, because not every fertilization results in a successful pregnancy -- likely some 50% of all fertilizations result in early pregnancy loss, perhaps even 75%.

Early periods happen. Late periods happen. They happen to women whose cycles are otherwise regular like clockwork; they are business as usual to women whose cycles never grooved into predictable regularity. They happen whether or not a woman has gotten up to shenanigans that would put her at some risk of pregnancy. But one of the best indicators that fertilization has happened is a late period. Does Mississippi's definition of personhood mean that a woman would now have a legal duty to motor on over to the drugstore every time she's a day late?

And what about those miscarriages again? Most early miscarriages, more than three-fourths of them, occur in the first trimester because of a health or age issue beyond the woman's control, or because of "cytogenetically abnormal" embryos -- pregnancies that perish because the result would have been unviable for genetically horrific reasons.

And in Mississippi, every early miscarriage, because it happens to a "person" with the full complement of civil rights, would be a homicide of some kind. Every homicide has to be investigated to determine whether it was intentional and what charges should be pursued. But you can never really tell, with any one menstrual period, whether there was a fertilization; a period simply means that an implantation failed to occur, not that there was no fertilization. And never mind the "morning-after pill," which prevents pregnancy by kick-starting uterine sloughing so that a fertilization, if it happened, cannot implant: what about the women in Mississippi who are currently using non-hormonal IUDs? Every month, there may have been a fertilization that did not result in implantation -- thus, there was a miscarriage. And thus, there was a death of a "person," and thus, there was a homicide. When miscarriage is a homicide, then every menstrual period is a crime scene.

Do the leaders and other citizens of Mississippi understand that? And if not, why are the proponents of Measure 26 not explaining it that way? And how do they propose to handle infertility treatments that result in the creation of surplus human embryos? If an IVF-created embryo doesn't survive implantation, what kind of homicide is it? Does Measure 26 ban the operation of IVF clinics in Mississippi?

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