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The Daily Need

As Mississippi votes on ‘personhood’ amendment, can science tell us when life begins?

Update | 10:28 a.m. Mississippi voters rejected the personhood amendment Tuesday, with more than 55 percent voting against the measure.

Mississippi voters will go to the polls Tuesday to decide on a proposed constitutional amendment that would redefine the term “person” to mean “every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.” At the minimum, the amendment would ban abortions with no exceptions for rape or incest. Critics also contend that the language is so broad and vague that the measure would also end up outlawing some forms of birth control and fertility procedures.

Opponents of abortion say the measure is designed to give legal rights to prenatal children. Abortion rights advocates allege that the Mississippi measure is just the latest in a series of back-door attempts at eroding women’s reproductive rights, enshrined in law by the landmark Supreme Court ruling Roe v. Wade. In recent years, several states have passed laws requiring women who seek abortions to first view sonograms of their fetuses. South Dakota even briefly flirted with a bill that would have made killing to “defend” a fetus a “justifiable homicide.”

Whatever the intended consequences of the so-called Mississippi personhood amendment, it’s almost certain that the measure will face an immediate and protracted court challenge, possibly winding up in the Supreme Court. It’s hard to tell whether the high court would take the case. On the one hand, the justices historically tend to consider cases that deal with laws that have been deemed unconstitutional by lower courts, or issues of national significance. On the other hand, the overly broad language of the amendment might become the courts’ focus, pre-empting the larger constitutional questions.

If those questions do arise in the course of a court battle, though, they are likely to touch upon an even more fundamental philosophical debate: When a fetus becomes a person. And, even though the issue of personhood has traditionally been thought of as a legal or theological question, both advocates and opponents of abortion often use very clinical, scientific language: They cite trimesters, zygotes, the stages of fertilization, the development of the heartbeat. In fact, laws that require women seeking abortions to view sonograms of their fetuses often also require them to listen to the fetuses’ heartbeats, too. Because the fetus has a heartbeat, the thinking goes, it must surely a person.

Regardless of how one feels about that question, it’s tempting to think that science, with all its accumulated knowledge, can provide easy answers. David French of the National Review, for example, writes that the Mississippi measure is “a logical — if belated — concession to well-established science.” French cites the scientific consensus that embryos contain DNA that is different from both of the parents, making that embryo, in French’s mind, a distinct person:

Given this biological reality, is it logical, reasonable, or remotely moral to characterize some human beings as “persons” and others not? Are we not long past such outright quackery? I hope and expect that Mississippi voters will decisively reject the deniers in their midst and recognize the reality of personhood. After all, it’s a simple matter of science.

Advocates of reproductive rights also use the science of fertilization and embryogenesis to argue against the notion that embryos are people. They point out that twins are created post-conception, in the two weeks after fertilization. Under the Mississippi amendment, critics ask, would this mean that one legal person would become two legal persons when twins are created? And what about when twin embryos fuse back together, as sometimes happens? Would those two people become one under the law? There’s also the matter of miscarriages, and the fact that as many as 60 to 80 percent of all naturally conceived embryos are discarded by the woman’s body, unnoticed.

The point here is that science is no more capable of providing definitive conclusions about personhood, or any other moral dilemma, than philosophy or religion. Everything on this planet, after all, is made of the same stuff. Biology doesn’t make distinctions about what’s a “person” and what’s not. Science might point us in certain directions, but it is up to us to make the tough moral or legal decisions about when personhood begins and what that means for the rights of women and their reproductive health. If the Mississippi amendment passes today, the courts will almost certainly be forced to grapple with these questions.

Science, however, won’t be much help. As Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, leader of the Human Genome Project and a devout Christian, said of the personhood debate in a 2007 interview with Discover magazine, “It’s an area where science isn’t really going to give you an answer. The only thing that science can say is that whatever line you draw between the fusion of sperm and egg and the birth of the baby is somewhat arbitrary.”

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