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.”
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.