‘Personhood’ Returns for 2010

Last year, the religious right ran Amendment 48 in Colorado to define a fertilized egg as a person, with full legal rights on par with born infants. The “personhood” measure would have paved the way to banning abortion, even in cases of rape, incest, health risks, and fetal deformity, perhaps excepting extreme risk to the woman’s life. If enforced, it would have led to bans on certain forms of birth control and severe restrictions on fertility treatments. It would have prompted criminal prosecution of abortions and criminal investigations of suspect miscarriages.

Voters crushed the measure 73 to 27 percent. So, after such a resounding defeat, the measure’s backers learned their lesson, right? Of course not. They’re back with a new — and even worse — proposal for 2010.

Mark Barna reports for the June 29 Gazette, “Two anti-abortion groups, Colorado Right to Life and Personhood USA, will submit a new ‘personhood’ initiative to the Colorado Legislative Council on Thursday in hopes of getting a measure on the 2010 state ballot.” Gualberto Garcia Jones of Personhood Colorado promises a “smarter,” better-funded campaign with better spokespersons.

But there will be an important change. Barna writes:

Rather than defining a person as “any human being from the moment of fertilization,” the new initiative will establish personhood in “every human being from the beginning of the biological development of that human being.”

“The change,” Garcia [Jones] said, “doesn’t leave any loopholes to artificial forms of reproduction such as cloning.”

See also coverage in the Denver Daily News (in which we learn that Garcia Jones is Catholic — big surprise there) and the Denver Post.

Tim Hoover of the Post doesn’t mention the cloning issue. Instead, he writes:

“When we use ‘fertilized egg,’ it’s a pejorative,” said Keith Mason, director of Personhood USA, an Arvada-based organization supporting the measure and similar proposals across the country. …

The amendment would say that “the term ‘person’ shall apply to every human being from the beginning of the biological development of that human being.”

So what is “the beginning of the biological development of that human being”? That would be up to courts to decide, said Gualberto Garcia Jones of Personhood Colorado.

How is calling a “fertilized egg” a “fertilized egg” a pejorative? Mason’s claim is ridiculous. So I’ll offer a different explanation. I think that the main reason supporters of the measure dumped the language about “fertilization” is that it draws to voters’ attention all too clearly the goals of the organization: to ban all abortion and any other action that might harm a fertilized egg, on the faith-based fantasy that God infuses a fertilized egg with a soul.

By substituting “human being” for “fertilized egg,” supporters of the measure hope to cloud the issue in sufficient ambiguity to trip up more voters.

Of course, the ultimate goal of the measure’s supporters — as they loudly proclaim — is to eventually elect the “right” politicians, who will appoint the “right” judges,” who will interpret the measure so as to declare a fertilized egg a “human being,” with all the legal ramifications that that entails.

Note the shift in Garcia Jones’s tone from the Gazette article to the one in the Post. He told the Gazette that the purpose of the new language was to make it even more restrictive: to extend it beyond fertilization to cloning. But by the time he spoke with Hoover, he said the courts will decide. One might get the feeling that Garcia Jones rethought his strategy of informing voters that he intends the new measure to apply to all fertilized eggs.

So what are we to make of this new language about a “human being?” As Diana Hsieh and I wrote in our paper on Amendment 48:

In fact, the advocates of Amendment 48 depend on an equivocation on “human being” to make their case. A fertilized egg is human, in the sense that it contains human DNA. It is also a “being,” in the sense that it is an entity. That’s also true of a gallbladder: it is human and it is an entity. Yet that doesn’t make your gallbladder a human person with the right to life. Similarly, the fact that an embryo is biologically a human entity is not grounds for claiming that it’s a human person with a right to life. Calling a fertilized egg a “human being” is word-play intended to obscure the vast biological differences between a fertilized egg traveling down a woman’s fallopian tube and a born infant sleeping in a crib. It is intended to obscure the fact that anti-abortion crusaders base their views on scripture and authority, not science.

Of course, a fertilized egg, unlike a gallbladder, has the capacity, in the right environment, to develop into a born infant, a person. But a potential person is not an actual person, a distinction consistently dodged by advocates of abortion bans.

The problem with the new measure’s language is that it relies on voters to decide for themselves what is a “human being.” Is it a fertilized egg, a “viable” fetus, or a born infant? It’s for the courts to decide, we are told. Then why do the measure’s advocates leave the language intentionally ambiguous?

Obviously, if we take “human being” as synonymous with “person,” then the measure is merely tautological. But clearly the goal of the measure’s supporters is to define a fertilized egg — and now a cloned zygote — as a “person.” The strategy is to make a rhetorical leap without bothering to show that a fertilized egg is, in fact, a person. Maybe that’s because there is no argument demonstrating that a fertilized egg is a person, because it isn’t.

Notably, not a single advocate of Amendment 48 even attempted to seriously address the arguments in the paper, “Amendment 48 Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters That a Fertilized Egg is Not a Person.” Thus, I do not need to recapitulate those arguments here, when readers can peruse the original for themselves.

For the advocates of abortion bans, this is not about proving that a fertilized egg is a person. This is about trying to obscure the issue and impose non-objective law in order to enforce the beliefs of sectarian faith.

7 thoughts on “‘Personhood’ Returns for 2010”

  1. And the fight begins anew! Thanks to you and Diana for all your hard work defeating the last crazy measure. Shouldn’t you post this on freecolorado as well?

  2. “Fertilized egg” is an oxymoron because there is no egg after fertilization, but a zygote. The .pdf linked does not say why the unborn are not persons and just says that it would be less convenient if they were.

  3. If you want an argument that a zygote is a person, here’s one. Read this and keep in mind that I am both an atheist and a communist.

    1. We know it is alive because it is metabolizing food into energy.
    2. We know it is human because it has human parents.
    3. There are only 4 differences between it and any other human being.
    3a. Obviously, the zygote is smaller than an adult or newborn. Does how big you are determine your value? Is Shaquille O’Neil more valuable than Hillary Clinton? Are dwarfs less valuable? As Dr. Seuss wrote in Horton Hears a Who, “A person’s a person no matter how small”. Or, if you prefer Yoda, “Size matters not, … Look at me. Judge me by size, do you?”.
    3b. The zygote is less developed. Is a premature baby less valuable than a toddler? If a 16-year-old has a fully developed reproductive system, is she more valuable than a 6-year-old?
    3c. The zygote is inside the mother’s body (or in a petri dish). Does where you are determine who you are? I’m sure you would agree a premature baby shouldn’t be killed. Does a trip of a few inches really cause some sort of metaphysical change? Would I lose my rights if I stood on a petri dish? Peter Singer recognizes this, but he instead is pro-infanticide.
    3d. The zygote is dependent upon the mother to survive. If this mattered, I could go into any hospital and shoot anyone on a pacemaker, respirator, IV, feeding tube, or life support. If this were true, teenagers would become more valuable once they get their driver’s license.
    4. In the long, sad history of the human race, we have discriminated against human beings because of race, age, gender, sexual orientation, and religion. Now we are discriminating based on level of development, environment, degree of dependency, and size.

  4. Nulono, Though you set up a knock down a variety of straw men, you utterly neglect the central argument: a zygote or embryo is completely contained within the body of a woman. This is not merely a matter of physical location, as you suggest, but of a fundamental biological relationship between two living entities.

    In addition to this, a zygote is not a person due simply to its lack of development. By contrast, a newborn and a 16-year-old have developed human organs.

    Also, I used “fertilized egg” to indicate that the advocates of the “personhood” measure want to protect zygotes from the moment of fertilization. Notably, this precedes implantation in the uterus. I suppose I could use “pre-uteral zygote” instead, but I think “fertilized egg” is more widely understood.

  5. I have declined to publish Nulono’s additional comments, which add no further substance to the discussion.

    However, I do think it worth pointing out that Nulono is wrong in claiming, “After implantation, the zygote is an embryo…” According to Mayo, “The sperm and egg unite in one of your fallopian tubes to form a one-celled entity called a zygote. … Soon after fertilization, the zygote travels down the fallopian tube toward the uterus. At the same time, it will begin dividing rapidly to form a cluster of cells resembling a tiny raspberry. The inner group of cells will become the embryo. The outer group of cells will become the membranes that nourish and protect it.” About a week after fertilization, Mayo continues, the zygote implants in the uterus. Then, “the third week after conception, marks the beginning of the embryonic period. This is when the baby’s brain, spinal cord, heart and other organs begin to form.”

    However, as Northwestern’s biochemical department points out, the precise meaning of the term “embryo” varies with usage, and it has evolved over time: “A fertilized egg that has begun cell division, often called a pre-embryo (for pre-implantation embryo). An embryo is now defined as a later stage, i.e. at the completion of” the pre-embryonic stage, which is considered to end at about day 14. The term, embryo, is used to describe the early stages of fetal growth, from conception to the eighth week of pregnancy.”

    The upshot is that “zygote” is simply not specific enough in the context of the “personhood” debate. We are talking about a zygote prior to implantation, which may also be called an embryo in the broader sense. Advocates of the “personhood” measure wish to protect zygotes from the moment of fertilization, so again I cannot think of a simpler term for this than “fertilized egg.” I could also say “zygote from the moment of fertilization” or “pre-embryo from the moment of fertilization.”

  6. I changed my mind and decided to publish Nulono’s complete comments:

    “After implantation, the zygote is an embryo, and after cell divisions the zygote becomes a morula, blastocyst, et cetera.

    “I you fail to posit a reason why a human being’s level of development or degree of dependency makes he or she less valuable.”

  7. Nulono wonders “why a human being’s level of development or degree of dependency makes he or she less valuable.”

    First I would point out that Nulono is presuming here that a “human being” is formed with the fertilization of an egg. Yet, as Diana Hsieh and I point out in our paper — http://bit.ly/UJeF5 — this presumption relies on an equivocation. A zygote is human in that it contains human DNA, and it is a “being” in the sense of an entity. But it is not a “human being” in the sense of a person, and that is what the entire debate is about.

    Nulono also seems to rely here on an intrinsic theory of value. Nothing is valuable to the universe as a whole; things are of value only to living entities. A living being’s life is valuable to itself, and often to many other living beings. But this has nothing to do with whether a living being is a person.

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