by Doctor Science
As I hope you all know, Mississippians are going to be voting on a "Fetal Personhood Amendment" on Tuesday. The amendment states:
The term 'person' or 'persons' shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.Now, the American Family Association (among others) says
the inclusion of the word cloning in the proposed Amendment is designed to prevent cloning embryos for fetal experimentation and does not in any way condone cloningI suspect that this is a lie. What they are *trying* to do is to get around the problems twins pose to the idea that human life begins at fertilization.
Twins Sarah and Ann with their mother, Elizabeth Gay Bolling, by Mathew Pratt, 1773. The objects the babies are holding are teething/pacifier/rattles of coral and gold. I don't blame Mom for looking a bit staggered about the eyes.
Let me first state my opinion as a biologist. Human life does not "begin", it is transmitted. Human personhood is not a biological concept: it is the state of being a human being for legal and moral purposes. Laws and morality need a clear line between "person" and "not a person", biology does not care. We may need to pick a line, but that's something *we* are doing, it is not dictated by "biological facts".
If you choose fertilization as the moment when a human person comes into existence, you have some problems:
- The fact that normally a large proportion, probably a majority, of human zygotes fail to implant or are miscarried. The proportion that die due to abortion is only a fraction of the total death rate you are contemplating
- Each zygote is genetically unique, but not all undoubted human beings are: identical twins are clones.
- The twinning process takes place during the two weeks after fertilization, but not at any set point; the chances of a zygote turning into identical twins seems to be random, about 4 or 5 per thousand births -- but it is undoubtedly much higher as a percentage of all fertilizations. In other words, there's no way of knowing whether a zygote will end up as a single undoubted human person, or two.
- Quite frequently, identical twin embryos will fuse back together, or one will be absorbed by the mother's body. The twinning process in unstable: there's not a neat, clear line between a singleton and identical twins in the early stages of pregnancy. There is no "moment of [natural] cloning".
- And that's not getting into the question of conjoined (so-called "Siamese") twins, who may or may not end up as legally and morally separate persons, depending on how exactly they're joined and which organs there are two of.
- I have no idea how doctors and judges could be sure that the death of a particular zygote or embryo is the death of one potential person, or two.
- On the other hand, a nontrivial number of people are walking around looking like a single person, but who turn out to be the results of fusion between twins in utero. That is, they started as two non-identical zygote-Americans, and neither zygote died -- but there is only one what you'd actually want to call person by the time they're born.
- These shifting-twin pregnancies are not rare: Boklage (quoted here) concluded that more than one pregnancy in eight begins as twins, and that, for every liveborn twin pair, 10–12 twin pregnancies result in single births. Which of these do Personhood supporters think should count as human deaths for legal purposes?
The anti-abortion thinkers who've considered the issue of twins seem to have mostly concluded that it doesn't really matter, all human life needs to be respected. But deciding a zygote is a *legal person* is a lot stronger than "respect", and has many practical consequences. Mississippi has already prosecuted a teenager for stillbirth, so there's clearly the legal will in that state to treat miscarriage and other pregnancy failures as potentially criminal matters. IMHO what's really criminal is that this is going on in the state with the highest infant death rate, something that doesn't seem to be quite so gripping and important for Mississippi politicians and voters. The most charitable interpretation I can come up with is that Mississippians feel hopeless to save the lives of many children they actually have, so they're distracting themselves by trying to define, and then save, invisible children. Or at least find someone they can blame for their deaths.
Meanwhile, I know a Mississippian who may become a refugee if the Amendment passes. She takes birth control pills to keep from bleeding into anemia every month, and if BCPs become illegal or unavailable in Mississippi she'll probably have to leave. How thoughtful and life-respecting of her fellow citizens.