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Personhood: Why Beginning Life at Conception Carries Risks, Even for Anti-Abortion Activists

Sadly, by granting equivalent legal rights to fertilized eggs, the personhood amendment may tip the scales and begin prioritizing the zygote over the post-born person.
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On November 8, Mississippi voters will be faced with the following yes-or-no question regarding their state constitution: "Should the term 'person' be defined to include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the functional equivalent thereof?"

If a majority votes "no" on the measure, known as Initiative 26 or the personhood amendment, reproductive rights in the nation's most conservative state would essentially remain unchanged. Mississippi's one abortion clinic would continue operating, women would continue having access to a suite of contraceptive measures, the state's three doctors who do in vitro fertilization (IVF) would continue following standards generally accepted in medical circles, and unborn fetuses would continue having fewer legal rights than fully formed humans.

On the other hand, if a majority votes "yes," as it seems poised to do, Mississippians' reproductive rights would drastically change. It may also fuel personhood movements in several other states, including Michigan, Florida, and Ohio.

The most publicized difference is with abortion, which would be considered murder and effectively banned -- without exceptions for rape, incest, or when the woman's health is compromised but not at immediate risk of death. OB-GYN doctor and "Yes on 26" advisory board member Freda Bush said in a press conference, "Women who have borne a child conceived in rape testify that the baby is a blessing, rather than have an abortion, which essentially continues the assault. Adoption is always a loving option."

Limiting abortions is a popular idea in Mississippi, which has a thriving anti-abortion movement and a prominent Christian majority. Perhaps as a result, much of YesOn26's advocacy appears designed to appeal to this audience. One YesOn26 commercial reminds Mississippians, in a manner similar to many pro-life campaigns, "No matter how small, every human life has infinite value." Another shows the audience a 24-week-old fetus named "Lyza Kate Freeman." Local newscasters have also highlighted the abortion element of the amendment, telling viewers, "[Initiative 26] would make abortions illegal, which is what's at the heart of this debate."

These segments do not, however, tell the full story. The implications of personhood -- that is, of granting a fertilized egg legal rights -- go far beyond limiting abortion. Regardless of one's stance on abortion, personhood is an extreme measure that pushes against many commonly accepted reproductive and human rights.

With full legal rights, destroyed eggs are essentially treated as murder victims. This is why abortion is illegal under personhood. This is also why personhood would outlaw all contraceptives that interfere with the implantation of fertilized eggs -- including intrauterine devices (IUDs), some forms of the birth control pill, and the "morning-after pill," which YesOn26 proponents call "human pesticide." Personhood would also prohibit scientists from destroying embryos they create in laboratories, a process often necessary during in vitro fertilization and in types of scientific research.

Personhood would also change how doctors treat women undergoing difficult pregnancies. On its website, YesOn26 advocates write, "Under personhood, a doctor would be required to save both lives if possible; but in the hard cases where the baby is unviable, the doctor would save the life of the mother." However, doctors often have to make judgment calls on when either life is in danger, and when they should begin prioritizing the mother over the unborn baby. This is particularly true in ectopic pregnancies, a complication in which the fertilized egg implants outside the womb. Under personhood, some doctors may become wary of prioritizing the mother's health, fearing legal ramifications if they "murder" the unborn fetus in the process.

Perhaps most worryingly, personhood may begin to criminally implicate some women for having stillbirths and miscarriages. Though YesOn26 insists personhood will not prosecute women for having miscarriages, this trend has already begun in some states, including Mississippi. Rennie Gibbs, who had a stillbirth in 2006 when she was 15, was charged with "depraved-heart murder" after prosecutors discovered she had a cocaine habit. The charge carries a mandatory life sentence.

In an extreme case, personhood could be even used to justify legal measures that most would otherwise consider preposterous. For instance, according to a recent New York Times editorial, a zygote under personhood may "be eligible to inherit money or be counted when drawing voting districts by population." Given how many laws use the terms "person" and "people," the editorial argued, the implications of personhood could be endless.

Within Mississippi, some groups have been trying to distinguish between the pro-life movement and Initiative 26. A grassroots organization called Parents Against MS 26, which claims to take no position on elective abortion, has been spreading its belief that "there are many valid reasons for pro-life AND pro-choice Mississippians to vote No on 26." In addition to providing FAQs on ectopic pregnancies and IVF, the site offers several personal stories and guest bloggers. For instance, Reverend Todd Owen Watson wrote, "It would be nice if the changing of one or two words in a state constitution would solve all of our concerns about life, its sanctity, and its meaning, but this ill-written and ill-advised amendment might destroy more life than it saves because of its... heavy-handed impact across all aspects of our daily existence."

Freda Bush hopes the personhood amendment will restore a "culture of life" in the United States. "It's unfortunate," she said, "that for the last forty years, the pre-born person has been marginalized and made legally irrelevant." Sadly, by granting equivalent legal rights to fertilized eggs, the personhood amendment may tip the scales and begin prioritizing the zygote over the post-born person. Personhood is not a simply change in nomenclature; its consequences are perverse, many of them reaching well beyond abortion.

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