In the latest issue of the journal Fertility and Sterility, American Society of Reproductive Medicine president Richard J. Paulson, MD, puts a call-to-action out to his fellow scientists, saying that they have a special obligation to correct “unscientific conclusions attributed to science” — especially when these conclusions have to do with when life it begins.
The debate of when life begins is quietly once again becoming a political hot topic, as not only has the new Republican-led Congress introduced a bill that would create a federal definition of “personhood,” or the entity of human life, as beginning at fertilization, but 10 states — Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, Indiana, Kansas, South Carolina, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington — have also introduced similar personhood or fetal rights’ bills in their respective legislatures in the past few months.
Why is this potentially troublesome?
As Paulson explains in his editorial, human life as we know it happens on a continuum. Sperm cells and egg cells — the cells that contribute to the making of a fertilized egg (or zygote) — are “alive” themselves, meaning that, technically, life exists even before conception. Which is exactly why, he says, we must be careful to not confuse the idea of human life with that of an actual, living human being. Life and living, when it comes to science, are hardly the same.
Which is what’s so worrisome when it comes to personhood bills and their potential repercussions.
“Personhood would effectively be a ban on abortion, most contraception, stem cell research and in vitro fertilization (IVF),” Leslie McGorman, the Deputy Policy Director at NARAL Pro-Choice America, tells Yahoo Beauty. “Some states would allow some of those things to be exempted, but standard personhood bills would not.”
Furthermore, McGorman explains, most personhood bills are written in a way that appears so limited that the average person wouldn’t understand the real-life implications of the measures.
“That’s our challenge,” says McGorman, “They seem like just a couple of words on a page, but they end up being the most impactful type of abortion restriction that exists.”
And McGorman notes that this influx of personhood and fetal rights’ bills in the states is no coincidence, but “an anti-choice tactic to move around the edges.”
“For forever, the tactic has been to eliminate Roe, and eliminate the protections in Roe so that you can’t have abortion in this country,” he continues. “But the secondary tactic is changing the definition of a human being in the law so that it includes a pregnancy or fetus. By doing that, it doesn’t necessarily have noticeable consequences — it just changes the definition of a person in the eyes of the law to include a fetus.”
And yet, by doing this, states are setting up a legal precedent so that should a challenge to Roe v. Wade make it to the Supreme Court, the Court would be forced to consider whether the state’s interest in protecting life — according to the terms in which the state defines life — supersedes a a woman’s legal right to abortion.
“They run this tactic on purpose,” McGorman explains, “because they know it’s granular and hard to understand and definitely is a long-term strategy. Because it’s incremental, [anti-choice activists and lawmakers] think that people won’t realize what will really happen.”
McGorman also says that this rash of new personhood and fetal rights bills are also a reflection of the way that Republican and anti-choice lawmakers are feeling emboldened by the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.
“We saw in the rhetoric of the campaign, after the campaign, and the rhetoric of anti-choice organizations that [the anti-choice movement] feels that this is their time,” he says. “And the number of pro-choice politicians are at such a numerical disadvantage in state legislatures in most of the country. It wasn’t a good situation before the election, and after the election it’s still not good — and so there’s a real lack of checks and balances in a lot of state legislatures, and this is how they are able to pass so many restrictions [on reproductive rights].”
She adds that the move by so many states — and by Congress — to continue to push the concept of personhood reflects a “longer strategy that under the Trump administration and with the Gorsuch nomination [to the Supreme Court], the anti-choice majority expect Roe to be overturned and they’re putting as many laws in place to position a case before the Supreme Court. The tactics haven’t changed, but reading the environment like we do — we know the vote count is different, we know the direction for passage in Congress is different. With so many gerrymandered districts, pro-choice lawmakers will have the minority for a little while more, so anti-choice lawmakers are trying to take advantage while they can.”
And yet, McGorman says that while she does think that anti-choice organizations and politicians currently field “emboldened,” she doesn’t think they’ll find the public support needed to create this legal precedent for defining life at fertilization.
“I don’t think the threat is there, but the threat is real,” she says. “When people understand how far-reaching the restrictions are of personhood, that is why ballot initiatives have lost in conservative states. People understand they will need contraception, that they will need abortion care as part of their reproductive healthcare, and that it is wrong to ban IVF, which is a procedure so many families rely upon. It’s so expansive and so crazy and so out-of-touch that people can’t get behind it when they understand what it really does.”
McGorman adds: “These bills are so extreme that the first instinct when people learn about them is, ‘That will never pass here.’ And obviously if we’re talking about something that’s going on the ballot, that’s often true. But when you’re talking about a legislature where both chambers are controlled by anti-choice politicians and have an anti-choice governor, there is a good chance of passage. Because [personhood] does impact contraception, IVF, stem cell research, because it is so far-reaching, it just doesn’t sound legal when people first learn about it.”
And yet, there is some sort of silver lining to the onslaught of legislation seeking to define life: “The good part,” says McGorman, “is that it allows people to see what the motivation is behind these types of restrictions and to know to take them seriously.”
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