Personhood: the question we’re actually asking

I’ve had several pro-26 commenters suggest to me that Initiative 26 is about deciding whether human life begins at conception, or about whether an embryo is a person. This is not correct, because those are scientific and religious questions that cannot be answered by popular vote.

The question at hand, as Genie Leslie points out, is whether even a one-celled fertilized egg ought to possess all the rights enumerated in Article III of the Mississippi Constitution. It may sound like a minor distinction, but it’s a very important one. It’s also a point where the arguments of the pro-26 supporters are logically inconsistent.

If it’s acceptable to terminate a pregnancy to save the mother’s life in the utmost extreme, you are implicitly conceding that the mother’s right to life is somewhat more important than the embryo’s. When we are talking about people, it’s never acceptable to deliberately kill anyone else, even when that person is doomed to die anyway, even if doing so is the only way to save someone else’s life. For example, if two people are trapped in a burning building and you can’t save them both, you can’t shove the other one out of the window on your way out.

That’s why the Catholic Church, and other pro-life groups such as the Association of Pro-Life Physicians, argue so hard about the principle of double effect. For those groups, it’s not okay to use methotrexate to deliberately end an ectopic pregnancy, even knowing that the pregnancy is inevitably doomed, and that waiting for rupture poses an additional risk to the mother’s life. They permit surgery to remove a damaged tube, which unavoidably removes the embryo and causes its death, but which is not a deliberate action performed solely for the purpose of killing the embryo.

In those groups’ view, the embryo’s right to life is precisely equivalent to the mother, and no choice can be made which deliberately values one above the other — you can only take actions which have a stated goal other than killing, even if fetal demise is an unavoidable side effect. That’s why, as we have seen in an earlier post, some pro-life hospitals refuse to terminate pregnancies even in the face of a grave threat to the mother’s life. In the view of those groups, you cannot kill one person to save the other, because you can’t choose between two lives of equal inherent value.

If you state that ectopic pregnancy treatment with methotrexate will be permitted, you are implicitly conceding that the embryo’s right to life is somewhat less valuable than the mother’s. If you state that IVF embryo cryopreservation and blastocyst transfer will be permitted, you are agreeing that it’s okay to treat an embryo in a manner which, applied to an infant, would constitute manslaughter.

Therefore, if you believe that methotrexate and cryopreservation should remain available, you believe that the Article III rights of the Mississippi Constitution do not apply completely to embryos in the same manner which they apply to people. If you believe that a doctor’s primary duty is to treat the mother rather than the embryo or fetus, you are conceding that the embryo is not fully equal to the mother. You can still believe these things even if you consider yourself pro-life, but you can’t believe them and still consider yourself pro-Initiative 26.

More importantly, if you believe that Article III rights apply to 100% equally to embryos, you cannot logically argue that Initiative 26 will protect current practices for ectopic pregnancy treatment and IVF.

Read the text of the amendment, and consider what you are actually being asked to sign off on. It’s not asking whether you think human life begins at fertilization, or whether embryos are people, or whether you oppose elective abortion. It’s asking whether you believe that an embryo ought to have precisely equivalent Article III rights to its mother.

Before you vote yes, think very hard about what you think should happen when the rights of the embryo and the mother come into direct conflict.

About Atlee Breland

I'm a Mississippian, a Christian, a computer programmer, a wife, and -- thanks to infertility treatment -- a mother of three wonderful children.
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19 Responses to Personhood: the question we’re actually asking

  1. E B says:

    Firstly, I think the way this is written is misinterpreting the idea. I cannot speak for YesOn26, I have no affiliation with them whatsoever, beyond agreeing with their viewpoint. A pregnancy is not ended to save a mother’s life. (Watch the wording here carefully). If in saving the mother’s life, harm comes to the unborn, that is unfortunate, but acceptable. Can you see the difference? It’s all in the intent within the phrase. The minutia involved in this article is muddying the waters of whether a person exists at the moment of conception. All the necessary DNA information is present, the only thing missing is time. Barring interference, the one cell will divide, becoming two, then four. Eventually a new human being will be born. Does the unborn have a right to be defined a person? I say yes! Is someone on a ventilator considered a non-person? No, therefore dependency is not a definition of personhood. Are the elderly endowed with more “personhood” than a one year old? Again no, so age is not a definition of personhood. Is someone more of a “person” because they live in Clinton as opposed to Tupelo? No, so location is not a definition of personhood. In the DNA of that single cell is the DNA that person will live with their entire life. Half of it comes from the egg, half from the sperm. But once the DNA forms to make the 26 chromosomes then all that remains is to wait. That cell deserves the chance to become a baby, be born, grow up, have a family, grow old, and pass away. Please vote Yes in 26.

  2. Thank you, E B, for providing an example of how 26 would gravely impact the treatment of ectopic pregnancy.

    The controversy with ectopic pregnancy is whether immediate treatment with methotrexate would be allowed, or whether women would be forced to undergo tubal removal surgery. Only the latter is truly compatible with the principle of double effect, since its intent is to treat the tubal damage and not damage the embryo. Methotrexate and tube-sparing surgery are NOT compatible with double effect, because they directly target the embryo. Methotrexate has the additional problem that it is used well before it’s established that any given ectopic pregnancy is truly life-threatening — you can’t use it if rupture is threatened or occurring.

    That’s why Personhood Colorado was explicit that tubal removal surgery would be the only acceptable method of ectopic pregnancy treatment, because it’s the only treatment that has the intention to save the mother’s life.

    It’s not muddying the waters to discuss a specific treatment when there is good reason to think that the treatment would be incompatible with personhood. If you think methotrexate should remain available for ectopic pregnancy treatment, you need to vote against 26.

  3. Nicole Bradshaw says:

    “Is someone on a ventilator considered a non-person? No, therefore dependency is not a definition of personhood.”

    I find this point interesting. If someone has no brain activity and cannot live without a ventilator and other mechanical life support, is it considered murder under state law to “unhook” them? I don’t think so. So, dependency DOES play a role in how the state looks at life.

    I think this argument adds an interesting dimension to this discussion.

  4. E B says:

    I did not specify brain activity. After some major surgeries, some people must be placed I respirators. Does this indicate the one on the ventilator is not a person? No.

  5. E B says:

    Nicole, your argument is an end-of-life one whereas 26 is a beginning of life affirmation. Apples and oranges.

  6. E B says:

    You’re welcome Ms. Breland. I think the fact remains that at the moment of conception all necessary information is present to form a fully developed person, given enough time. That’s the question before us. Is the single cell a person? Resoundingly yes.

  7. E B says:

    By the way, ectopic pregnancies account for 1.97% of all pregnancies (1992) up from .45% in 1970. This increase is most likely from improved diagnostics. Its believed that the extra 1.52% is accounted for because, previously, they would spontaneously resolve Http://www.aafp.org/afp/20000215/1080.html

  8. I agree with those stats, E B.

    That’s why it’s questionable whether ectopics would be allowed to be treated at discovery, or whether doctors must wait until the mother’s life is clearly threatened by actual or impending rupture to be able to perform a treatment which will destroy the embryo as a side effect.

    To pull it back to your end-of-life analogy, doctors aren’t allowed to euthanize terminally ill patients, or remove them from a respirator until brain death has actually occurred.

    It’s crystal clear that ectopic pregnancy treatment, and women’s fertility and lives, would be seriously affected by Initiative 26.

  9. E B says:

    Absolutely, slightly more than half of the abortions-of-convenience (those being girls) will be significantly affected, for the good. Bringing the focus back to the subject at hand, life, and therefore personhood, begins at conception. If not then, when does it begin?

  10. E B says:

    And there are already protections in the law for physicians:
    http://www.mscode.com/free/statutes/97/003/0003.htm as just one example.

  11. E B says:

    Also, ectopic pregnancies are non-survivable for the unborn; therefore, having this conversation is moot.
    http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000895.htm

  12. E B says:

    Since I have dispelled all your questions concerning this topic, with my previous post, I urge you to reconsider your position and choose life, choose to vote Yes on 26.

  13. Nicole Bradshaw says:

    @E B
    Apples and oranges? We’re already allowing citizens to make end of life decisions for their next of kin. That’s a right we provide for and protect legally. If personhood begins at conception, when does it technically end?

  14. E B says:

    Nicole,
    Not entering that debate on this topic which is ectopic pregnancy and Amendment 26. If anyone wants to have that discussion on another post, I would be willing, and yes, I think even Ms. Breland agrees withe on this one, apples and oranges.

  15. E B says:

    Ectopic pregnancy and vegetative state might actually be a good comparative for “lack of hope” and obvious choices to be made.

  16. Mrs. Breland absolutely does NOT agree, but I also have a job, a family, and a full schedule of Parents Against MS 26 events. I’m basically offline for the next 48 hours and will address this at a later date.

  17. E B says:

    Just a reminder so that it doesn’t get lost in all the comments: ectopic pregnancies are non-survivable events for the unborn ( http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000895.htm ), therefore having a conversation about whether or not treatment for the condition could occur under Amendment 26 is a non-starter. It absolutly could.

  18. Nicole Bradshaw says:

    EB, regarding the laws on the books that protect physicians, I was wondering – doesn’t an amendment to the state constitution require that existing laws that may conflict with it be re-interpreted? So, if a particular case was brought that challenged ANY current law, wouldn’t that case be heard and weighed in light of the new amendment? Which would result in either that law be reinterpreted via precedent, or the amendment being struck down?

    I think that’s the stumbling block for alot of people on this proposed amendment – how it will affect the interpretation of A LOT of existing laws and practices. And, unfortunately, that’s not a question that the “yes” side can answer for us. Because if the amendment is passed, how it’s interpreted, legislated and enforced will be entirely out of their hands.

  19. Also, the laws on the books which protect physicians are based on the understanding that an unborn baby is not in possession of constitutional rights and is a lesser entity than its mother. Change that legal foundation by implementing personhood, and those laws will potentially require re-interpretation.

    The survivability of the embryo in an ectopic pregnancy isn’t relevant to its personhood. As long as it is alive, it would be a human being with rights, and could not be given a treatment whose primary purpose is to end its life, such as salpingotomy or methotrexate.

    The useful parallel here is, I think, a cancer patient under hospice care, whose death is imminent. A doctor may prescribe narcotics as necessary to relieve pain, even though those drugs may have the side effect of hastening the patient’s death. However, the doctor CANNOT prescribe those same drugs for the specific purpose of ending the patient’s life. (It should be noted, and I have personally experienced, that doctors are often reluctant to treat cancer pain adequately for just this reason.) Similarly, the Terri Schiavo debate was about withdrawing active treatment to maintain her life, rather than taking deliberate action to end her life.

    Similarly, salpingectomy would be allowed — I’m not disputing that — but there is legitimate reason to think that other treatments will not be, and to question whether salpingectomy could be performed until the patient was in actual danger. Those other treatments save women’s lives, prevent severe damage to their physical health, and preserve their fertility.

    As I have already done elsewhere, I note that Personhood Colorado agrees with my assessment that salpingectomy would be the only personhood-compatible treatment for ectopic pregnancy.

    Once again, I stand by my statement that women ought to have a variety of options available for the treatment of conditions such as ectopic pregnancy. The lives and health of women like Stacey cannot be treated as collateral damage to end abortion.