Due to the serious illnesses of two family members, the Spirited Atheist has been absent from this column for two weeks. What awaited her upon her return was news of the latest assault on personal liberty and science by the far religious right, in the form of a proposed amendment, Proposition 26, to the Mississippi state constitution that would declare any fertilized egg a person with full legal rights.
This amendment, to be voted on Nov. 8 in Mississippi, goes far beyond the familiar claim of anti-abortion activists that the fetus is a person (an assertion explicitly rejected in Roe v. Wade). The medical definition of a viable pregnancy has always been the point at which a fertilized egg is implanted in a woman’s uterus. Many long-established forms of contraception, including the IUD, work by preventing implantation.
Then there are potentially fatal accidents of nature, in which the egg, instead of proceeding to the uterus, becomes stuck in one of the fallopian tubes in what is called an ectopic pregnancy. The embryo can never develop into a live birth and the ectopic pregnancy must be ended or the tube will rupture and the woman will die. Before there were blood tests to reveal the failure of an egg to implant normally, most women did die from ectopic pregnancy. One of the obvious dangers of this amendment would be the prosecution of doctors for performing a standard life-saving procedure. We are talking here about a medical measure to save the life of a real person, not of a group of cells that can never become a person because nature has made an error.
This pernicious Mississippi proposal, based on religious extremism and ignorance of human anatomy and biology, is not just about abortion. It would allow religious interference with all medical care involving the female reproductive system. The anti-abortion movement has never been just about abortion. It has always been about the desire of certain religions to control women’s bodies and lives. Proposition 26 strips away the pretense—which all anti-abortion groups try to maintain—that ordinary birth control, practiced by Americans of all faiths, would not also be affected by declaring the “personhood” of every embryo. The leaders of these groups are well aware that most Americans, including those who oppose abortion, regard birth control in quite a different and positive light.
This proposal is so extreme, in fact, that it has split the anti-abortion movement. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Right to Life Committee -- neither of which could be called “soft on abortion” -- are not supporting the amendment because they think it would interfere with their efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade. Their fear is that even the current Supreme Court, with its conservative (and Roman Catholic) majority, might not uphold an amendment that would interfere with standard contraception and with surgery to save a woman from certain death.
But the usual suspects, the far-right Christian American Family Association and Family Research Council, are pushing the proposal not only with their voices but their money.
The amendment would of course also have a major impact on infertile couples trying to become pregnant through in vitro fertilization, since it would prohibit the destruction of any spare embryos stored in laboratories. It would also prevent the use of the “morning-after” pill in all instances, including rape and incest.
The great irony of this proposal is the biological fact that most fertilized eggs, after ordinary sexual intercourse, never implant themselves in the uterus. Nature simply winnows them out along the path to a pregnancy capable of ending in a live birth. Dr. Randall S. Hines, a fertility specialist in Jackson, Miss., and one of the leading medical opponents of Proposition 26, says, “Once you recognize that the majority of fertilized eggs don’t become people, then you recognize how absurd this amendment is. We’ll be asking the Legislature, the governor, judges to decide what is best for the patient.”
Similar “personhood amendments” have been defeated twice, by large margins, in Colorado but most political observers say that that Proposition 26 will probably win approval in Mississippi. The passage of this law is likely to fuel lobbying efforts for similar amendments in all highly conservative states, especially in the South, and prevent any form of abortion in a huge section of the nation. Another irony is that more conventional abortion restrictions have already reduced the number of abortion clinics to one -– that’s right, one – in the entire state of Mississippi. But of course, teen pregnancy could not possibly have anything to do with the high poverty rate and low high school graduation rates in that state.
Make no mistake about it: Proposition 26 is entirely about the determination of far-right religious institutions to make their brand of faith the legal standard for for all matters involving sex, reproduction and women’s (though not men’s) bodies. What’s next? What about, say, sperm cells before they meet up with an egg? After all, condoms prevent each sperm cell from ever having a chance to touch their future egg-mate.
Perhaps we could have a law requiring the storage of seminal fluid in condoms for future use, recalling the old Monty Python song, “Every sperm is sacred/Every sperm is great/When a sperm is wasted/God gets quite irate.”