Last Tuesday in Mississippi the “personhood amendment” garnered only about 42 percent of votes and (fortunately) did not pass. This proposed amendment to the State Constitution stated, “life of an individual begins at fertilization, cloning, or the functional equivalent thereof”. We wish to comment that this interpretation should raise serious doubts and concerns.
The proposed amendment was extreme, likely banning abortion even in cases of incest or rape, and even when the Mother’s life is threatened, and prohibiting in vitro fertilization, which results in embryos that are not used. As a result many prominent Doctors, Nurses and Clergy spoke out against it, contributing to its defeat.
The “Personhood Movement”, however, vows to continue its fight, and plans to propose similar constitutional amendments in other states, including Ohio. Since we might be casting critical votes in the relatively near future it is perhaps time to revisit the question of when during development we become a “person”.
One view, supported by the Personhood Movement, is that this occurs at the moment when two living cells, the egg and sperm, join to form the fertilized egg. From some perspectives this is an attractive answer. This is a well-defined event, and marks the point where a unique genetic combination is created. This is certainly when the embryo begins its developmental voyage to birth and beyond.
But there are some problems with this conclusion. First, most people are surprised to learn that about half of fertilized eggs do not normally survive to birth. The majority of these are lost very early in pregnancy, failing to implant into the wall of the uterus, well before the Mother even knows she is pregnant. If these very early embryos are full-fledged people then this is a catastrophe of major proportions. Think of it, for every person that is born there is a person that dies before birth. That is a lot of death.
It is also interesting to consider the remarkable ability of single early embryos to give rise to more than one person. We see identical twins, triplets and so on fairly routinely. Indeed, each cell of an eight cell embryo is able to independently make a complete person. If a single soul enters an embryo at conception, as some religions assert, then what happens to that soul when an embryo splits into multiple people? Do they each get but part of a soul?
For the sick and aged we have some fairly explicit criteria to determine when life is over and it is OK to “pull the plug”. In particular, if brain activity ceases then one is considered medically dead. For some it might seem appropriate to apply the same rules to the beginning of life. Very early embryos have no brains, as they are just one or a few cells. They are not conscious and can feel no pain.
So where does one draw the line? According to the Catholic and Evangelical view life begins at fertilization. At the other extreme, the Jewish view is that Human life begins with the first breath, as the head emerges from the womb. Most of us would likely place the time of “personhood” at some point in between.
There are no easy answers, but last Tuesday the people of Mississippi spoke, and declared that the proposed extreme amendment was unacceptable.