Speeding Tickets for Embryos? As Personhood Bills Proliferate, Could Be

Remember the "Defense of Marriage" ballot measures?

Ah, those were simpler, more innocent days. Back then, the religious right contented itself with trying to scare up backwoods voters with church-basement videos about the "Gay Rights Agenda" and gay recruiters in high schools. It all seems so Bush-league now. The dark forces of Old-Time Religion have moved on to a more sophisticated campaign.

"We need to get back to the respect for life that we used to have in this country that's been lost," Virginia pol Robert Marshall tells CNN. Respect for life, eh? Perhaps he was thinking of Virginia's 1928 anti-lynching statute, put in place nearly 50 years after white mobs began the habit of dragging black men to a public square, torturing and then hanging them. Not that the law was often enforced, but you can see how it would show a due respect for life.

In any event, Marshall is the proud sponsor of a bill that would give fetuses the same rights as "other persons" from the moment of fertilization. The implications may be mind-boggling, but the GOP-dominated House of Delegates sent it sailing through nonetheless. If the Virginia Senate follows suit, life in the Old Dominion state will never be the same.

In future elections, will pregnant women vote twice? Once for themselves and once for their embryos? And if a pregnant lady is pulled over for speeding, will the cop have to ticket junior along with mom? After all, the bill states that "unborn child at every stage of development [shall have] all the rights, privileges, and immunities available to other persons, citizens, and residents of this Commonwealth."

But let's not descend into silly conjecture. After all, the real implications of this bill and its companion piece mandating pre-abortion vaginal probes are outrageous enough. To enact into law the religious dogma that a person springs into life at conception is to do violence to women, medicine, science, religion and a rational civilization.

If doctors are legally bound on pain of possible murder charges to consider a fetus at any stage the equal of its mother, then a number of women will die horrible and unnecessary deaths. Pregnancy is dangerous. Our evolutionary history (rather than any alleged misdeed by Eve) has made human pregnancy the most dangerous of all. In places where modern medicine is unavailable, women have a one-in-16 chance of dying in childbirth. Doctors sure as hell don't need fanatical lawmakers tying their hands as they try to treat women with life-threatening pregnancies.

Of course, if the religious zealots were right -- if there really were two fully realized people in one body from the moment of conception -- it would be a different matter. But they are wrong. Deep down, they must know this, for they rely on selective quotations from the Bible and then hitch them to selected trimmings from science.

You've probably seen this snippet, usually with an attribution to God: ""Before I formed thee in the womb, I knew thee." It's presented as a biblical argument for personhood from conception. Just one problem: the whole quotation clearly shows that God is talking not about babies in general but about one Jeremiah, whom He has specially selected to be a prophet.

"Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,

before you were born I set you apart;

I appointed you as a prophet to the nations."

What's more, it's not God talking directly, it's Jeremiah recalling what God supposedly told him. (Much as God supposedly told GWB to invade Iraq.) In some places in the Bible, breathing seems to be the criterion of life, and elsewhere "quickening" -- that is, the noticeable movement of the fetus in the mother's belly. It's not my purpose to rehash that whole argument here, but only to point out that pro-lifers aren't above giving Scripture the same treatment they inflict on evolutionists: distortion through selective quotation.

Now, as for science: Pro-lifers, some of them with medical degrees, will tell you science shows that a person forms at the moment a human sperm fertilizes a human egg. "As soon as he is conceived, a man is a man," testified the late Dr. Jerome Lejeune before the state Tennessee legislature. Such pronouncements are bunk, and happily you don't need a medical degree or scientific training to see it for yourself.

The claim that "life begins at conception" trades on a linguistic shell game. It is trivially true that a new and unique genome is formed at conception. A genome, however, cannot possibly be mistaken for a person. To prove this, pluck a hair from your head. You are now holding a unique genome in your hands. But, you will doubtless agree, it is not a person. Otherwise, bald men would be goners.

The switcheroo takes place when pro-lifers use "life begins at conception" to refer to a person, as in the LeJeune quotation above. To see that this is complete nonsense, just click here. You'll find yourself at National Geographic's recent feature on twins. "Identical" twins, it notes, are not really identical. And however similar they may appear, they are certainly not the same person! At the moment of conception, there is not a scrap of science that can tell whether one, two or no persons will result.

So, we're back to religion and politics. In that vein, will someone please remind Rep. Marshall and his band of pro-life, probe-happy fanatics: E pluribus unum does not mean "One dogma to rule them all and in the darkness bind them."