Sunday, October 16, 2011

When Is A Person a Person?

Mississippi is attempting to define human person-hood as legally starting at the moment of fertilization of the human ovum.  This being pursued via a ballot initiative.

On its face it sounds just wonderful, especially if you subscribe to that viewpoint.  But the article points out there are legal traps just waiting to be sprung.  The law of unintended consequences looms large.  For example; if a woman miscarries will she be investigated for possible prenatal murder (because there might have been human involvement) as was proposed in Georgia?  That particular action isn't going anywhere but what if..?  Another example; if a woman has a condition that endangers her life and is creating an environment impairing the fetus' development will she be forced to carry the pregnancy to whatever end, without any option to save her own life?  Another example; the child raped and pregnant, courtesy of a male relative, and unable to carry the pregnancy to term.  She's 9 years old and her body (especially her hips) is physically immature.  Never mind the horror of being raped by someone she should be able to trust.  Shall we lock the parents onto one path, damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead?  Is the state willing to assume the financial responsibility for any psychological treatment as well as the costs of the pregnancy itself?  More to the point, does the state implicitly assume such responsibility as a consequence of its determination that fetuses are legally protected as persons at all stages of development?

Then, of course, there are the issues with inheritance and so forth involving minor children.  At what point in pre-natal development does the fertilized egg progress to minor child for legal purposes?  Sure, snicker if you like but don't bet on lawyers ignoring that legal thicket (and the lure of the legal fees that will ensue).

What about in vitro fertilization for those having difficulty becoming pregnant?   What will be the impact on the clinics, and families they serve?  Typically they fertilize multiple eggs and implant those that seem best able to continue development.  Will this initiative require that they protect every fertilized egg regardless of its condition because person-hood begins with fertilization?

Consider also the fertilized eggs, which will be legally defined as persons if the initiative passes, that fail to implant successfully.  One report I read states that up to 50% of fertilized eggs fail to implant successfully.  Those women may not know that they were ever pregnant.  Under the proposed initiative those women are literally flushing people down the toilet, even though they don't know it.  Of those that do know that they are pregnant it is estimated that 15-20% have miscarriages.  Will the state rush in to manage women's lives in order to reduce the number of miscarriages?

I understand what murder is and I don't believe in killing people aside from a direct existential threat (saving my life or another's when death, or the threat of it, is staring us in the face).  But I am not willing to assign person-hood to a fetus that is developing in my womb because the state tells me that is what I am going to do.  Particularly when it is not viable outside the womb.  Viability matters a great deal to me because at that point we are talking an independent entity that can survive without residing in my womb.  It still needs support, but at that point any person who takes on that responsibility can do it without my participation.  If I choose, on the basis of my beliefs, to assign person-hood beginning at fertilization, then that that is my choice and it should be respected.  But until the fetus reaches the point that it can live outside my womb the state needs to stay out of my decision making.

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