Our rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness
can only be secured by a state strictly separated from religion

30 September 2010

The 'Personhood' Movement Is Anti-Life: Part 16


This post is drawn from Ari Armstrong's and my new policy paper: The 'Personhood' Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception. I'm currently posting the full paper as a series of blog posts. You can read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.

The 'Personhood' Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception

By Ari Armstrong and Diana Hsieh, Ph.D
A policy paper written for the Coalition for Secular Government (www.SecularGovernment.us)
Published on August 31, 2010

'Personhood' and the Separation of Church and State

To the world at large, advocates of "personhood" might seem to be little more than unusually devoted and consistent opponents of abortion. They might seem to be motivated by a commitment to scientific fact and inalienable rights. Yet in fact, they are religious zealots seeking to impose the tenets of their faith by force of law. Consequently, any "personhood" measure, in addition to the other harms they threaten to unleash, would violate the proper separation of church and state.

"Personhood" advocates do not conceal or disguise their religious agenda. They proclaim it, loudly and persistently. Consider a few representative claims.

Kristi Burton, the public face of Amendment 48 in the 2008 campaign, explained her reason for fighting to ban abortion: "It just came to me. I prayed about it and knew God was calling me to do it."[159]

As noted previously, Personhood USA's founders proclaim their religious motives:
Personhood U.S.A. is led by Christian ministers Keith Mason and Cal Zastrow...who are missionaries to preborn children. ...They also lead and participate in peaceful pro-life activism, evangelism, and ministry outside of places where preborn babies get murdered [sic]. Personhood USA is committed to...[h]onor[ing] the Lord Jesus Christ with our lives and actions.[160]
In Personhood USA's "Amendment 62 Campaign Video" for 2010, a spokesman (erroneously) claims that the Declaration of Independence declares that "the rights of the unborn...come from the Creator." The video follows this statement with a Bible passage purportedly supportive of "personhood." Personhood USA thanks the "thousands of volunteers and hundreds of churches that made Amendment 62 a reality." For background music, the video uses the Bluetree song, "God of this City," which begins, "You're God of this city, you're the King of these people, you're the Lord of this nation."[161]

Personhood Colorado (while misrepresenting the arguments against "personhood") tailors its message to the religious:
Now the Church must unite and act boldly for the child in the womb. Amendment 62 needs men and women of faith to promote the culture of life in our churches by organizing campaigning events and prayer teams.

In 2008, an unprecedented number of churches awoke from their slumber to put the Personhood Amendment on the ballot. This year, we are on the ballot and need to reach out to even more churches so that we may continue to educate and advocate for the preborn child.

Personhood is a Spiritual Battle. The secular world and their false gods have no reason to protect the preborn child. However, with the power of God's promises, and the loving support of His people, all of the lies and scare tactics used by the secular world will be defeated.

God's word is clear. The only real question is, will we be faithful? ...There are a number of resources available for you to use in your churches. One is a letter by the Alliance Defense Fund, a national Christian law firm, assuring pastors of the legality of working on a constitutional amendment vis-a-vis their non-profit status. ...

The most important aspect of our outreach to the churches is 1) to have God's people praying for the preborn child and for this campaign, and 2) to have God's people work to get Amendment 62 [passed].[162]
Colorado Right to Life, whose vice president helped submit Amendment 62 to the Secretary of State, "commits to never compromise on" what it holds to be "God's law," which is that "[e]very human being has a God-given right to life from the beginning of that person's biological development [fertilization] through natural death."[163] The organization also includes a web page titled "The Bible and Abortion" to highlight the many Biblical passages the organization deems supportive of "personhood."[164]

The "About" web page for Personhood Florida begins and ends with Bible passages. The organization declares, "As the hands and feet of Christ it is up to us to safeguard this most fundamental of these rights--human personhood."[165]

Personhood.net, a website of Georgia Right to Life, proclaims four "laws of personhood," where the first two are explicitly based on God's will, as revealed through Judeo-Christian scripture:
Law 1: A person is a living physical/spiritual being created in the image of God, male and female, from their earliest biological beginning until natural death.

In a Judeo-Christian worldview the human being as such is afforded a special status and dignity on account of being created in the image of God: "So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them." (Gn 1:27) ...Because we bear the image of God, all mankind, and, by extension, each and every human life has a "specialness" and worth that demands respect.[166]
Law 2: A person's right to life is inalienable regardless of age, race, sex, genetic pre-disposition, condition of dependency or biological development.

Genesis 2:7 (ESV) "...then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature." The right to life is inalienable because it originates with God.[167]
Abort73.com, a website featured prominently by Personhood USA, is a project of Loxafamosity Ministries.[168] "Motivated by our Christian calling," the organization works to "establish justice" and "expose evil injustices" in accordance with its religious views. The organization's seven-point statement of religious faith, which discusses among other things the Christian's need to evangelize, concludes with a call to recognize the "social implications" of the "announcement of the gospel of Jesus," which the group holds to include the policy goal of totally banning abortion.[169]

Such proclamations of deeply religious motives are representative of the "personhood" movement and pervasive within it. "Personhood" activists leave no doubt that their political agenda is fundamentally motivated by religious faith. For example, upon turning in signatures for what would become Amendment 62, supporters cheered for Jesus and broke out in the song, "Onward Christian Soldiers."[170]

Undoubtedly, "personhood" advocates offer a secular argument to supplement their appeals to God's will--as seen in a prior section. Yet even that argument is fundamentally religious, in that the logical leap from the human biology of the embryo and fetus to its personhood requires an assumption of God's gift of rights at conception. The secular argument is mere veneer for the thoroughly religious worldview that animates the calls for "personhood."

In fact, American Right to Life, "The Personhood Wing of the Pro-Life Movement," explicitly warns against appealing to science rather than focusing on basic religious dogmas:
Don't make excuses for Planned Parenthood murdering countless children by saying, "Now that we have 4D ultrasound, we know that this is a baby." Long before ultrasound, the mutilated body of the first aborted child, and the millions since, testified to the wickedness of child killing. 3,500 years ago the Mosaic Law in the Hebrew Scriptures recognized the unborn child as a person...[171]
Evidently, even "personhood" advocates don't take their own secular arguments very seriously--and no wonder, since they're so simplistic and fallacious.

In all likelihood, "personhood" advocates resort to secular claims only to appeal to mainstream voters, and perhaps to ward off future legal challenges. In that respect, they resemble the Christians promoting creationism under the pseudo-scientific banner of "intelligent design."

Ultimately, we should take "personhood" advocates at their word: they seek to impose God's law on America. They want to force all Americans, whatever their religious beliefs, to conform to the dictates of their faith. As such, Amendment 62 and other "personhood" measures must be regarded as prime examples of faith-based politics--or worse, outright theocracy. They violate the separation of church and state--and that's an additional reason to reject them.

Despite the frequent claims from the religious right that America was founded as a "Christian nation," the U.S. Constitution is a thoroughly secular document, referring to religion only to forbid any mingling of faith and politics. Most importantly, the First Amendment states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."

In his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists, Thomas Jefferson expounded the significance of this basic law:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.[172]
What does that analogy of a "wall of separation" imply about the relationship between church and state? As philosopher Onkar Ghate argues, its original and proper meaning is two-fold. First, the state ought not use its powers of coercion to shape people's religious beliefs or practices, such as by requiring people to accept Islam or attend church. Instead, the state must only consider whether people's actions, regardless of any religious motivation, violate the rights of others. So the state should intervene to stop men from beating their wives, even if sanctioned by religious scripture. And it should allow people to speak in tongues, even though that is foolish. Second, churches cannot be permitted to harness the power of the state to promote or enforce their preferred religious beliefs and practices, such as if priests acted as television censors or received special tax refunds. Instead, churches must respect the rights of others, using only persuasion to motivate belief.[173]

In essence, a proper government cannot give any more or less weight to certain beliefs just because they are religious in nature. The government must allow people freedom of conscience--including the freedom to act on their beliefs, however wrong or even absurd--provided that they do not violate the rights of others in the process. Yet the government itself must act solely based on rationally provable facts about man's nature, including secular principles of individual rights--not based on any claims of religious faith. Such is the true meaning of a separation of church and state.[174]

Despite some secular veneer, "personhood" advocates aim to force Americans to comply with their notion of divine law. As we have seen, they proclaim that purpose, loudly and clearly. As such, they seek to violate every American's freedom of religion and freedom of conscience.

Of course, "personhood" activists have every right to attempt to persuade others to follow divine law, as they see it. They have every right to condemn abortion on religious grounds--and attempt to persuade pregnant women not to abort. However, to impose their views by force--whether as vigilantes or political activists--constitutes a grave violation of rights.

In sum, due to their inherently religious motivation and justification, "personhood" measures violate the separation of church and state--and thereby threaten the very foundations of our freedom. A just and proper government must determine the rights involved in pregnancy on the basis of empirical fact, informed by an objective theory of rights. It must recognize and protect the rights of actual persons, not invent rights for merely potential persons. It must uphold the right of the pregnant woman to terminate her pregnancy at any time, for any reason.

Read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.


29 September 2010

The 'Personhood' Movement Is Anti-Life: Part 15


This post is drawn from Ari Armstrong's and my new policy paper: The 'Personhood' Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception. I'm currently posting the full paper as a series of blog posts. You can read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.

The 'Personhood' Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception

By Ari Armstrong and Diana Hsieh, Ph.D
A policy paper written for the Coalition for Secular Government (www.SecularGovernment.us)
Published on August 31, 2010

The Morality of Abortion

In addition to the political debates about abortion rights, many people condemn abortion on moral grounds as an evasion of responsibility for the known consequences of sexual intercourse. In fact, however, the termination of a healthy pregnancy can be--and usually is--a morally responsible choice.

Most people do not object to abortions in cases involving rape, incest, deformity, or risk to the woman's life. Yet they question or even condemn abortions obtained for seemingly less weighty reasons, such as financial hardship, the demands of career or school, problems in the romantic relationship, or not wanting another child. Moreover, when birth control was not used--or used carelessly--people may condemn the abortion as particularly irresponsible. Undoubtedly, these moral objections to abortion stem from implicitly regarding the embryo or fetus as a person, at least in part. People often suppose that the interests of the embryo or fetus should be weighed against the interests of the pregnant woman, such that the termination of a healthy pregnancy cannot be morally justified. In the face of these views, we should ask: Is abortion a morally proper choice simply because the pregnancy and resulting child is unwanted? If so, why?

People should not allow themselves to be buffeted through life by accidental circumstances, for to do so is to court disaster and misery. Instead, people ought to consciously direct the course of their lives by their own rational judgment and long-range planning. With respect to procreation, a woman and her partner ought not bear a child just because she happens to become pregnant. Instead, they ought to consider the impact of the pregnancy and resulting child on their health, finances, careers, and overall well-being. They ought to consider whether their relationship is stable enough to withstand the strain of raising a child. They ought to have a child only if they are willing and able to be good parents.

As Ayn Rand wrote in her essay "Of Living Death," in defending the morality of abortion:
The capacity to procreate is merely a potential which man is not obligated to actualize. The choice to have children or not is morally optional. Nature endows man with a variety of potentials--and it is his mind that must decide which capacities he chooses to exercise, according to his own hierarchy of rational goals and values. ...

It is only animals that have to adapt themselves to their physical background and to the biological functions of their bodies. Man adapts his physical background and the use of his biological faculties to himself--to his own needs and values. That is his distinction from all other living species.

To an animal, the rearing of its young is a matter of temporary cycles. To man, it is a lifelong responsibility--a grave responsibility that must not be undertaken causelessly, thoughtlessly, or accidentally.[156]
A couple seeking to live fully rational, purposeful, and hence human lives must decide for themselves whether and when to have children, based on their interests, capacities, and circumstances. To fail to do that--to assume the enormous responsibility of a child simply due to the accident of pregnancy--would be self-destructive. As such, and given that neither the embryo nor the fetus is a person with a right to life, abortion can be a moral choice.

These same basic considerations apply, even when irresponsible sex causes the pregnancy. Unfortunately, such is common. One study found that 46 percent of women who got pregnant unintentionally weren't using any birth control. Among the rest, only 13 percent of birth-control users and 14 percent of condom users reported correct use.[157] The undesirable outcome is not surprising, as the difference in outcomes between "perfect use" and "typical use" of birth-control methods is dramatic.[158]

Couples who cannot be bothered to use birth control or who use it carelessly, then terminate the resulting pregnancy by abortion, deserve some blame. Yet the problem in such cases is not the abortion. If an unwanted pregnancy was caused by irresponsible behavior, then that behavior ought to be morally blamed, not any ensuing abortion. (Similarly, if a skier breaks his leg by skiing too fast in dangerous terrain, we ought to blame him for that skiing, not for his sensible choice to restore his leg to health by surgery.) In the future, the couple ought to resolve to always use birth control properly, in order to avoid the distress, expense, and risks of another unwanted pregnancy. Yet they should feel no guilt for the abortion, if that best served their interests--but only for engaging in irresponsible sex. Moreover, to the degree that a couple's irresponsible use of birth control indicates habits of irresponsibility, to demand that the couple forego abortion as a matter of moral duty would itself be terribly irresponsible. Such a couple would likely be ill-prepared for the immense burdens of parenthood, and a child should never be inflicted as punishment for the irresponsible decisions of its parents.

Opponents of abortion often present adoption as the moral alternative to abortion for an unwanted pregnancy. Yet adoption is not a viable option for many couples, often for good reasons. To carry any pregnancy to term itself involves some risk, as well as time, effort, and endurance. For some women, that burden might be too great. Moreover, putting up a child for adoption can involve severe and enduring emotional costs, precisely because the born infant to be bestowed on strangers is a person--and one's own child. That is not true of the embryo or fetus destroyed in abortion.

Opponents of abortion also claim that couples can protect themselves against unwanted pregnancy by refraining from sex entirely. However, sex is a magnificent human value integral to any healthy, developed romantic relationship. To advocate this course is to demand that a woman and her partner choose between abstinence and procreation. That is morally wrong: it is not a choice that couples in a modern society should be obliged to make.

In sum, anti-abortion activists often gather support for their cause by associating abortions with promiscuous, irresponsible sex and other self-destructive behaviors. However, women often become pregnant unexpectedly through no fault of their own. In other cases, the error was not the abortion but the irresponsible sex. Whatever the cause of the pregnancy, the embryo or fetus is not a person whose interests must be balanced against those of the woman. So a couple faced with an unintended pregnancy ought to consider the impact of bearing a child on their own lives, as well as the kind of life they could offer that born child. In many cases, abortion might be not just a moral option, but the best one too.

Read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.


28 September 2010

The 'Personhood' Movement Is Anti-Life: Part 14


This post is drawn from Ari Armstrong's and my new policy paper: The 'Personhood' Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception. I'm currently posting the full paper as a series of blog posts. You can read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.

The 'Personhood' Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception

By Ari Armstrong and Diana Hsieh, Ph.D
A policy paper written for the Coalition for Secular Government (www.SecularGovernment.us)
Published on August 31, 2010

Individual Rights and Abortion


Rights in Pregnancy

On its surface, the secular argument for "personhood" might seem so simple as to be unassailable. Yet in fact, that simplicity conceals fatal defects in its implicit view of the nature and source of rights. Rights are not inherent in human biology: the right to life is nowhere stamped on our DNA. Rather, rights are principles identifying the freedoms of action required for human flourishing in a social context. As we shall see, such rights can and do apply to born infants, but they cannot be legitimately or coherently extended to embryos or fetuses.

The basic biological facts cited in the secular argument for "personhood" laws are not controversial. The fertilization of an egg by a sperm creates a new human life, distinct from that of its genetic parents. By an active, complex, and gradual process of development, that zygote may grow into an embryo and fetus, emerge from the womb as an infant, develop through childhood, mature into an adult, and finally age until death. However, contrary to the argument for "personhood," that process of biological development does not establish that the zygote, embryo, or fetus is a human person with a right to life. Why not?

"Personhood" advocates assume that each and every human life, whatever its qualities or situation, must be a person too. They offer no argument for or explanation of that view. Yet in fact, the concepts are distinct, such that they need not perfectly coincide. In other words, the concepts of "person" and "rights" may not apply to all forms and stages of human existence. The distinction is simple. The concept of "human life" or "human being" used in the first half of the argument for "personhood" is purely biological. It identifies an organism as part of the human species. The concept of "person" used in the second half of the argument for "personhood" concerns politics. It identifies some entity as entitled to claim rights. To slide between these two distinct concepts using the term "human being"--as "personhood" advocates consistently do--is to commit the fallacy of equivocation.

The scope of the political concept "person" cannot be specified by science. That is a question for philosophy, to be answered based on an objective theory of the nature and source of individual rights. That these biological and political concepts might not coincide perfectly is hardly appalling, as "personhood" advocates suggest.[143] Rather, the very purpose of the political concept "person" is to enable us to specify the scope of rights apart from any rigid biological criteria.

The advocates of "personhood" dogmatically assert that every human life is a person for a very simple reason: their secular defense of "personhood" is mere veneer on a deeply religious worldview whereby rights can only be understood as gifts arbitrarily bestowed by God. By creative and selective readings of their scriptures, combined with distorted appeals to America's founding principles, the advocates of "personhood" believe that God bestows the right to life at conception. That is why they consider embryos and fetuses persons. However, that is a matter of faith, not rational conviction--and unsurprisingly, the facts show otherwise. Hence, even the secular argument for "personhood" is ultimately religious at its root.

To understand the rights applicable to pregnancy, we must sketch an objective theory of rights. In short, the rights of persons are not gifts from a divine creator, nor found in scripture, as conservatives often imagine. Nor are rights mere entitlements and permissions bestowed and rescinded by majority vote, as modern liberals suppose. Rather, rights are principles identifying our proper freedom of action. And they are rooted in facts about human nature, particularly the conditions for survival and flourishing in society.[144] How so?

Humans cannot survive and flourish by tooth and claw--nor by our feelings, instincts, or faith. We live by exercising our distinctive capacity to reason in order to produce the values required for life--or we perish. That simple fact of human nature is the source of our rights. As Ayn Rand explains:
Since man's mind is his basic tool of survival, his means of gaining knowledge to guide his actions--the basic condition he requires is the freedom to think and to act according to his rational judgment. ...If men are to live together in a peaceful, productive, rational society and deal with one another to mutual benefit, they must accept the basic social principle without which no moral or civilized society is possible: the principle of individual rights."[145]
So what are rights? Again, Ayn Rand explains:
A "right" is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man's freedom of action in a social context. There is only one fundamental right (all the others are its consequences or corollaries): a man's right to his own life. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action; the right to life means the right to engage in self-sustaining and self-generated action--which means: the freedom to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfillment and the enjoyment of his own life. (Such is the meaning of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.)[146]
In essence, "to recognize individual rights means to recognize and accept the conditions required by man's nature for his proper survival."[147]

On this objective theory of rights, a person's rights are absolute and inalienable, yet they arise in and pertain to a social context. That's because individual rights are the most basic principle of justice in a society. They're neither innate qualities--nor gifts bestowed by divine powers, constitutional tradition, political leaders, or voters. Moreover, genuine rights cannot conflict, nor require the sacrifice of some persons to others. That's because rights protect each person's power to pursue his own life and happiness, free of forcible interference from others. Rights are freedoms to action, not entitlements to goods and services provided by others, nor duties imposed on others.

Given this understanding of the nature and source of rights, we can now ask: Is an embryo or fetus a person with a right to life, like an infant? No. To see why not, we must compare its basic nature and situation as it develops through pregnancy to that of a born infant.[148]

From the moment of fertilization to its implantation in the womb a few days later, the zygote consists of a few largely undifferentiated cells. It is invisible to the naked eye. It has no human organs, and no human form. It has no brain, and so no capacity for awareness or emotions. It is far more similar to a few skin cells than an infant. Moreover, the zygote cannot develop into a baby on its own: its survival beyond a few days requires successful implantation in the lining of the woman's uterus. If it fails to do that, it will be flushed from her body without anyone ever knowing of its existence.

If the embryo matures normally after implanting into the lining of the uterus, it gradually develops primitive organs. Yet its form is not distinctively human in the early stages: it looks very similar to the embryo of other species.[149] As it develops its distinctive human form, the fetus remains wholly dependent on the woman for its survival. Even with the most advanced medical technology, many fetuses born in the 22nd to 25th week of pregnancy will die, and many of those that survive will suffer from "some degree of life long disability, ranging from minor hearing loss to blindness, to cerebral palsy, to profound intellectual disability."[150] So before viability, the fetus is not capable of an existence independent of the pregnant woman.

After 26 weeks, when a fetus would be viable outside the womb, its organs continue to mature in ways critical to its survival and well-being after birth. It is aware, but that awareness is limited to the world inside the womb. Most importantly, however, so long as the fetus remains within the woman, it is wholly dependent on her for its basic life-functions. It goes where she goes, eats what she eats, and breathes what she breathes. It lives as she lives, as an extension of her body. It does not interact with the outside world. It is wholly contained within and dependent on her for its survival. So if the woman dies, the fetus will die too unless delivered quickly. The same is true if the fetus's life-line to her body is disrupted, such as when the umbilical cord forms a tight knot.[151] A fetus cannot act independently to sustain its life, not even on the basic biological level possible to a day-old infant. It is thoroughly and solely dependent on the woman in which it lives.

That situation changes radically at birth. A baby lives his own life, outside his mother. Although still very needy, he maintains his own biological functions. He breathes his own air, digests his own food, and moves on his own. He interacts with other people as a whole and distinct creature in his own right, not merely as a part of a pregnant woman. He can leave his mother, either temporarily or permanently, to be cared for by someone else.

These important differences between the mode of life of the zygote, embryo, and fetus on the one hand, and the born infant on the other, show that the former cannot be persons. Rights, in other words, cannot be applied until birth. Why not?

First, the utter biological dependence of the zygote, embryo, and fetus on the pregnant woman shows that, until birth, it is not yet living its own life, but rather partaking in the life of the woman. It exists as part of the pregnant woman, not as an individual in its own right. Yet rights pertain only to individuals, not parts thereof. Such is the case, even when the fetus would be viable outside the womb. Even then, it is only a potential individual, not an actual one. The fetus only becomes an actual individual when birth separates it from the woman's body. Until then, it cannot be a person with a right to life. The pregnant woman, in contrast, is always an individual with full rights.

Second, the zygote, embryo, or fetus does not exist in a social context until birth. Due to its enclosure within the body of the pregnant woman, the new life cannot interact with other people: it experiences only muffled sounds and indirect pressure through the woman. It cannot be touched or handled, nor can it even engage in the primitive communication possible to infants. Even the pregnant woman cannot directly interact with her fetus, as she will do with her newborn infant. Until birth, she can only act as a biological host to the life inside her, not as a mother. A woman, in contrast, lives in society whether pregnant or not--and her rights are therefore absolute and inalienable.

Given these facts, to ascribe any rights to the zygote, embryo, or fetus before birth is a profound error. It is not a person--or rather, it is only a potential person, not an actual person. To suppose that mere potentiality is sufficient is to commit the fallacy of the continuum. The fact that a zygote may develop into a born infant does not prove the zygote to be the same thing as a born infant--any more than an acorn is an oak tree and a caterpillar is a butterfly. As philosopher Leonard Peikoff observes, treating a zygote--a potential person--as though it were an actual person makes no more sense than treating an adult human--a potential corpse--as though he were an actual corpse.[152]

The conclusion that rights begin at birth is confirmed by the serious conflict between any rights ascribed to the embryo or fetus before birth with the rights of the pregnant woman.

The pregnant woman's most fundamental right--her right to life--is not merely a bar against murdering her. Her right to life encompasses all the actions that she deems necessary to promote her flourishing and happiness, provided that she does not initiate the use of force against others (and hence violate their rights). Her right to life protects her capacity to act by her own rational judgment, in pursuit of her own self-interest--and such is the very purpose of rights.

The advocates of "personhood" deny the pregnant woman's right to life in asserting rights for the embryo and fetus. Abort73.com, for example, frames the issue in terms of competing rights:
Politically speaking, abortion is an issue that involves competing rights. On the one hand, you have the mother's right not to be pregnant. On the other hand, you have the baby's right not to be killed. The question that must be answered is this. Which right is more fundamental? Which right has a greater claim? Abortion advocates argue that outlawing abortion would, in essence, elevate the rights of the unborn over and above those of the mother. "How can you make a fetus more important than a grown woman?", they might ask. In reality, outlawing abortion wouldn't be giving unborn children more rights, it would simply gain for them the one most fundamental right that no one can live without, the right to life.[153]
This analysis is utterly wrong. Rights are trumps: they identify the scope and limits of each person's freedom of action in society. To assert conflicts between rights is to confess that one's theory of rights contradicts itself, and a self-contradictory theory of rights cannot be true.

Yet that analysis by Abort73.com is correct, in one sense. By the very nature of pregnancy, any rights ascribed to the embryo or fetus would conflict with the rights of the mother to her own body. Since pregnant women are clearly persons with full rights, that fact only confirms that embryos and fetuses are not persons with rights. Moreover, Abort73.com acknowledges (to some extent) that pregnant women would be obliged to sacrifice themselves to provide life support to the embryo and fetus: "If a baby is not to be aborted, then the pregnant mother must remain pregnant. This will also require of her sickness, fatigue, reduced mobility, an enlarged body, and a new wardrobe. Fortunately, it is not a permanent condition."[154] Yet that demand for forced sacrifice contradicts the very nature and purpose of rights. How so?

Rights enable people to flourish by ensuring that they interact by peaceful, voluntary, and mutually beneficial trade--rather than violence, theft, and fraud. In particular, the right to life guarantees one's own freedom of action in pursuit of one's life: it's not a duty imposed on others to preserve one's life. The responsibility of care for another can only be acquired by the voluntary consent of the care-giver, such as when a man takes a friend out to sea on his boat for a week or when parents take an infant home from the hospital rather than abandoning it under a "Safe Haven Law."[155] However, to grant rights to the embryo and fetus would be to impose such an unjust duty on pregnant women. Regardless of her own plans for her life, every pregnant woman would be obliged to provide life-support to the embryo and fetus, perhaps at great personal cost to herself and her family. That's not freedom; it's slavery.

Significantly, the inalienable right of the pregnant woman to her own life--and hence, her own body--confirms that even a viable fetus cannot be properly regarded as a person with rights. Undoubtedly, for a pregnant woman to seek to abort a healthy, viable fetus without some overriding concern (such as her own health) would be a bizarre and possibly vicious act, e.g., if done to spite the father or due to evasion of the pregnancy for months. Yet the fact remains that even when a woman is deeply committed to her pregnancy, serious conflicts can arise between her welfare and that of the fetus, such as when receiving emergency medical treatment during childbirth or after a car accident. Due to such cases, the law must reflect the fact that the woman has an absolute right to make her own choices about her body. The potential for such conflicts only ends once the fetus is born, when the woman and baby become--and can be treated as--fully separate individuals.

Of course, when a woman wants to bear a child, she will value her fetus tremendously. She will do all she can to ensure the birth of a healthy baby, protecting it from myriad harms. Moreover, she has every right to expect that the police and courts will protect her and her fetus from criminal assault. Indeed, the law should severely punish criminals who intentionally harm a woman and her fetus. However, the only rational basis for such laws is the woman's rights to her own body--coupled with a recognition of the value she places on her fetus--not any false rights attributed to the fetus. Just as the fetus depends on the woman's body for its survival, so it depends on the woman's rights for its legal protections.

In sum, the fundamental biological differences between a zygote, embryo, or fetus versus an infant show that a woman has every right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy--for any reason. The pregnant woman is a human person with the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. So is an infant. However, neither a zygote, nor an embryo, nor a fetus is a person. It has no right to life-support from the pregnant woman. For the state to force a woman to provide such life-support under penalty of law would be a gross violation of her rights. Yet that's precisely what "personhood" measures would demand--based on the irrational fantasy that a zygote has the same moral and legal standing as an infant.

Read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.


27 September 2010

How Amendment 62 Would Stop IVF


Here's a great comment from "Emma B.," posted to the NoodleFood comments, on the chilling effect of Amendment 62 and similar "personhood" measures on fertility treatments:

I want to make it very clear just what "dramatically increasing the cost" means from a scientific standpoint, and just how impossible IVF would become under single-egg-collection rules.

When you undergo IVF, you take medications for about 10 days to cause your ovaries to produce multiple egg follicles, and then undergo an egg-retrieval process to remove the eggs for fertilization. After fertilization occurs, the new embryos are allowed to develop for anywhere from two to five days. The best of the surviving embryos are chosen and transferred to the woman's uterus, where they may or may not implant and develop into a pregnancy.

About 50% of eggs collected will not fertilize, and about half of the fertilized eggs stop developing prior to transfer. When two embryos are transferred, the pregnancy rate is 40% AT BEST (for the youngest, healthiest patients), meaning that at least 60% tihe time, both embryos quit developing. (It's also worth noting that about 75% of IVF pregnancies are singletons, meaning that the second embryo died off.)

Back-of-the-envelope math is that any given egg has about a 5% chance of turning into a positive pregnancy test, let alone a living breathing baby. IVF costs about $10-15K a cycle, and switching to single-egg fertilization wouldn't decrease that cost to any measurable degree. Obviously, single-egg fertilization rules would all but eliminate IVF -- at a 5% pregnancy rate, the cost-benefit just doesn't make sense at all. Which, of course, is exactly the point of said rules.

Of course, at that point, infertile couples will simply switch to doing IVF tourism in India or South Africa. Alternately, they will do more cycles of IUI + gonadotropins, which has a higher multiple birth rate and is the source of almost all higher-order multiple pregnancies.


The 'Personhood' Movement Is Anti-Life: Part 13


This post is drawn from Ari Armstrong's and my new policy paper: The 'Personhood' Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception. I'm currently posting the full paper as a series of blog posts. You can read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.

The 'Personhood' Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception

By Ari Armstrong and Diana Hsieh, Ph.D
A policy paper written for the Coalition for Secular Government (www.SecularGovernment.us)
Published on August 31, 2010

Individual Rights and Abortion


The Core Arguments for "Personhood" Laws

The activist groups seeking to make "personhood" measures the law of the land offer two distinct arguments for granting full legal rights to embryos and fetuses, one religious and one secular. Often first and foremost, they claim that the embryo or fetus is an innocent life recognized and valued as such by God. Hence, abortion is a grave violation of God's prohibition on murder.[125] However, as we argue in a later section, America was founded as a free country, not a theocracy. To force people to obey God's alleged laws is a clear violation of their liberty rights, as well as a violation of the separation of church and state. However, many of these groups offer a secular justification for "personhood" too. They claim that every human has an inalienable right to life, that the humanity of the embryo and fetus is self-evident, and that abortion grossly violates their rights.[126]

What do "personhood" advocates say to justify this claim of self-evident humanity? The argument is stated briefly on the website of Personhood USA as follows:
The science of fetology in 1973 [at the time of Roe v. Wade] was not able to prove, as it can now, that a fully human and unique individual exists at the moment of fertilization and continues to grow through various stages of development in a continuum (barring tragedy) until natural death from old age. ...If you look up the word "person" in your average dictionary...you'll find something like this: Person n. A human being. A person, simply put, is a human being. This fact should be enough. The intrinsic humanity of unborn children, by definition, makes them persons and should, therefore, guarantee their protection under the law.
As a result, Personhood USA claims, all "unborn children" should be recognized as possessing "certain rights such as the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."[127]

More substantive defenses of the view that embryos and fetuses are fully human persons with the right to life are found in sources cited by "personhood" groups, such as the website Abort73.com and the book Prolife Answers to Prochoice Arguments by Randy Alcorn.[128] Here, we will outline that argument in its secular form, ignoring appeals to "God-given" rights and Christian scripture.

The argument for the self-evident humanity of the embryo and fetus begins with the scientific claim that the life of a human being begins at conception. Apart from any religious beliefs, it says, the science of medicine overwhelmingly affirms that a new human life is created with the fertilization of the egg by a sperm.[129] That new life is thoroughly human, highly complex, biologically active, and distinct from the pregnant woman. It is neither a blob of tissue, nor just a part of the pregnant woman's own body as are her organs.[130] As Abort73.com says:
At the moment of fertilization, a new and unique human being comes into existence with its own distinct genetic code. Twenty-three chromosomes from the mother and twenty-three chromosomes from the father combine to result in a brand-new and totally unique genetic combination. Whereas the heart, lungs, and hair of a woman all share the same genetic code, her unborn child, from the moment of fertilization, has a separate genetic code that is all its own. There is enough information in this tiny zygote to control human growth and development for the rest of its life.[131]
In essence, advocates of "personhood" claim that the fertilization of the egg by the sperm creates a new, distinct, and thoroughly human life, i.e. a human being. The resulting zygote, embryo, and then fetus is not merely a potential human being: it is an actual human being in an early stage of development.[132]

Next, the argument asserts that to be a person--in the sense of possessing the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness--requires only that something be a human being. Abort73.com says:
There are essentially two issues which must be resolved concerning unborn embryos and fetuses. The first is, "Are they human beings?" The second is, "Should they be recognized as persons under the law?" We've already established that there is no debate on the first question. ...So should humans be recognized as persons under the law? Yes, because humans are persons. Something is a person if it has a personal nature. In other words, something is a person if, by nature, it has the capacity to develop the ability to think rationally, express emotion, make decisions, etc. This capacity is something that a person has as soon as he begins to exist, since it is part of his nature (in other words, if he exists, he has it). Since humans have a personal nature, humans are persons. As for the fetus, since it is a human (and so, something with a personal nature), it is a person. Just as a cat qualifies as a feline simply by being a cat, a fetus qualifies as a person simply by being a human. So, it is impossible for a fetus to not be a person.[133]
In other words, the capacity to exist as a person is simply part of human nature. That intrinsic personhood does not depend on any further qualities that might be developed later, such as "size, skill, or degree of intelligence."[134] In his book Prolife Answers to Prochoice Arguments, Randy Alcorn writes:
Age, size, IQ, or stage of development are simply differences in degree, not in kind. Our kind is our humanity. We are people, human beings. We possess certain skills to differing degrees at different stages of development. When we reach maturation there are many different degrees of skills and levels of IQ. But none of these make some people better or more human than others. None make some qualified to live, and others unqualified.[135]
On this view, a person is nothing more or less than a human being: all persons are humans and all humans are persons. Hence, Abort73.com states, "a person...is nothing more or less than a living human. ....The differences that exist between a human being before birth and a human being after birth are differences that don't matter."[136]

Finally, the argument claims, the fact that every human life from conception to natural death is a person has profound political and legal implications. "The intrinsic humanity of unborn children qualifies them as persons and should, therefore, guarantee their protection under the law."[137] More specifically, the embryo and fetus have "the one most fundamental right that no one can live without, the right to life"--just like a born infant.[138] While women have rights to their own bodies, as well as to the lifestyles of their choosing, those rights are not "absolute and unconditional": they must be limited in pregnancy due to the more fundamental right to life of the embryo or fetus.[139]

Ultimately then, according to "personhood" advocates, a pregnant woman cannot have the right to choose to get an abortion any more than she can properly choose to commit assault, murder, or theft.[140] Since abortion destroys the life of another person, it must be outlawed as a willfully criminal act.[141] To support abortion rights is to sanction the ongoing genocide against the unborn, with about 50 million dead so far.[142]

Now, with that clear picture of the secular argument for "personhood" firmly in mind, we can take a fresh look at the question of rights in pregnancy.

Read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.


26 September 2010

Abortion and Biological Individuality

By William H Stoddard

Among supporters of the right to abortion, many believe that that right weakens, or can be set aside, late in pregnancy. Sometimes this is based on viability, or the fetus's potential for surviving outside the uterus. Adherents of Ayn Rand's view of the rational faculty as the source of rights sometimes base a similar view on the emergence of brain activity late in pregnancy. I recently commented on this issue; I've been asked to present my comments on Politics without God for a wider readership.

In practical terms, I think this issue is nearly always moot. There are very few difficulties with a pregnancy that will first show up that late, and for a fetus that advanced, the risks of abortion are often comparable to those of birth.

However, as a matter of principle, I think it's mistaken.

We can say that I have a right to life partly because my life does not inherently impose costs on you. If you and I are in the same room, the carbon dioxide I exhale doesn't poison you, the heat I radiate doesn't burn you, and the hormones, allergens, or drugs in my bloodstream don't change your metabolism. Note, too, that if I am suffering from a contagious illness, a case can be made for forcibly restraining me from interacting with other people, and that case grows stronger as the illness grows more infectious and more lethal. This is precisely a situation in which my biological functions and yours are not fully separate when we are close together.

But a fetus and the woman carrying it cannot possibly have separate biological functions. Its oxygen and nutrition come from her blood; its wastes go into her blood; its presence alters her hormonal state and mechanically strains her body. And what she does affects it almost as much, though it has some insulation. Treating them as if they were two separate individual beings doesn't make sense, no matter how cognitively functional the fetus is. So talking about what rights the fetus has, as against what rights the pregnant woman has, is a kind of stolen concept: it attempts to apply the concept of individual rights when there are not two individuals.

And given that one nervous system is fully conscious and volitional, and the other is only beginning to be so, it has to be the woman who makes medical choices. Few women who have carried a fetus for 24 weeks are going to choose abortion at that point, and certainly not on impulse; but if the pregnancy turns life-threatening, I think it's justifiable for the woman to choose to have the fetus removed, just as she could choose to have a limb or an organ removed if the alternative were death from gangrene or cancer—also choices that a woman would likely find difficult and make with regret. And in any case, it's not possible to have the woman and the fetus vote on whose life should be saved, or to consult with the fetus; the woman has to decide. If she chooses to risk her life, or die, to give birth, that's her right; but the fetus can't have a right to demand that she do so, because it's not a separate individual and can't have rights. Life is a property of individual living organisms; if there aren't two fully separate organisms, there aren't two lives, and there can't be two separate (and potentially opposed) rights to life.

If we had different technological options, we might have to resolve other issues. The science fiction writer Lois McMaster Bujold writes about societies with "uterine replicators," which permit a fetus to develop outside it's mother's body; a fetus in a replicator seemingly would be a separate individual, as much as a premature infant in an incubator. It might have individual rights; defining the point at which this became true would be a complex question of legal philosophy. Fortunately it's not one we need to settle now.


25 September 2010

Draw, Don't Burn

By Ari

It occurred to me that it may not be perfectly obvious to everybody why I and many others endorsed and participated in Everybody Draw Mohammed Day but I oppose Terry Jones's idea to burn the Koran. If you think the two acts are similar or comparable, you are utterly confused.

The first critical point here is that, as Sarah Palin pointed out, people have a political right to burn the Koran, as they have the political right to burn the flag or the Christian Bible. But just because you have a political right to do something, doesn't make it moral.

As I argued with respect to Everybody Draw Mohammed Day, it is perfectly moral to draw Mohammed, even in a disparaging way. Doing so constitutes (or at least may constitute) a constructive addition to the cultural discussion and state some sort of interesting point.

On the other hand, burning the Koran is a repulsive and immoral act, simply because burning any book to protest the contents of the book is repulsive. The way to fight bad ideas is to argue against them, not try to wipe them out of existence. This point is especially poignant given the Christian penchant for burning groundbreaking scientific texts during the Middle Ages.

Consider the worst book I can imagine, Hitler's Mein Kampf. While I don't have the stomach to read it, I want people like Stephen Hicks to read it and explain to the world precisely why it is so evil.

I regard the Koran as basically a bad book because it demands total personal sacrifice to a false supernaturalist construct. While debate rages about the proper interpretation of the text, nobody can seriously dispute the fact that the book has inspired many to commit grotesque acts of violence, oppress and abuse women, and murder homosexuals and "infidels." But the goal should be to read the book, understand it, and explain why it's wrong.

All that said, the very fact that the Obama administration has warned about possible Islamist violence in the wake of a Koran burning illustrates the vicious nature of the violent incarnations of the religion. Burning a book, so long as it's your copy of the book, violates nobody's rights. Hurting or killing somebody obviously does. Burning a book should not be a crime; committing vioence against another person properly is. If Muslims seriously regarded their beliefs as a "religion of peace," they would not respond to a book burning with violence.

While it is wrong to burn any book to protest its contents, it is immeasurably more evil -- and properly against the law -- to physically hurt or threaten people for their beliefs or expressions.

This article originally was published at Free Colorado.


24 September 2010

The 'Personhood' Movement Is Anti-Life: Part 12


This post is drawn from Ari Armstrong's and my new policy paper: The 'Personhood' Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception. I'm currently posting the full paper as a series of blog posts. You can read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.

The 'Personhood' Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception

By Ari Armstrong and Diana Hsieh, Ph.D
A policy paper written for the Coalition for Secular Government (www.SecularGovernment.us)
Published on August 31, 2010

Individual Rights and Abortion


Today's "Pro-Choice" Rhetoric

Today's most prominent defenders of abortion rights follow in the footsteps of Roe v. Wade. By and large, they offer superficial and pragmatic defenses of abortion rights based on vague appeals to privacy, coupled with accounts of the harms inflicted by abortion bans.

The websites of the two most prominent pro-choice advocacy groups in America--Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America--offer no substantive defense of the right to abortion. They simply assert a broadly pro-choice position, without grappling with the difficult moral and legal questions raised by abortion. For example, the website of Planned Parenthood's "Action Center" offers the following as their sole defense of "abortion access":
Our primary goal is prevention--reducing the number of unintended pregnancies, especially the alarmingly high number of teenage pregnancies, in the United States. At the same time, to protect their health and the health of their families, women facing an unintended pregnancy must have access to safe, legal abortion services without interference from the government. Decisions about childbearing should be made by a woman in consultation with her family and doctor--not by politicians.[118]
Only a few of the organization's posted "Research Papers" concern abortion, and those that do focus solely on the history of abortion rights, the safety of abortion, and abortion statistics.[119] Similarly, NARAL's only substantive document pertaining to abortion rights posted to its website is an eleven-page "fact sheet" on "The Safety of Legal Abortion and the Hazards of Illegal Abortion."[120]

The failure of these two most prominent pro-choice groups to address the philosophic questions surrounding abortion does not bode well for abortion rights in America, particularly in light of the rise of a fervent "personhood" movement. That's because neither vague appeals to the privacy rights of pregnant women nor the harms wrought by abortion bans are of any importance if conception creates a person with a right to life. Why not?

First, if embryos and fetuses are persons, then a pregnant woman cannot claim that her decision to terminate her pregnancy should be respected as "private." She would be obliged to respect the rights of the innocent person within her--and if she failed to do so, the state could and should intervene. To seek an abortion would not be a "private medical decision" but rather akin to hiring a hit man.

Second, if embryos and fetuses are persons, then the pregnant woman would be obliged to endure any financial burdens, health problems, or emotional strain caused by the pregnancy. The right to life of the embryo or fetus would override every such concern, except perhaps the woman's own life. To abort an embryo or fetus due to inconvenience or hardship in pregnancy would be just as horrifying as suffocating one's elderly parents due to difficulties in providing them care.

Third, if embryos and fetuses are persons, then women who suffer terrible complications from illegal abortions have only themselves to blame. To demand legal abortion on that basis would be as bizarre as legalizing assault or rape to prevent perpetrators of those crimes from injuring themselves. The law should protect the victim of the crime (i.e., the embryo or fetus) not the perpetrator (i.e., the pregnant woman).

In sum, the standard pro-choice arguments for abortion rights, drawn from Roe v. Wade, cannot withstand the basic claim of "personhood" advocates that fertilization creates a new human person with its own right to life. As Christopher Kurka, the sponsor of the "personhood" initiative in Alaska said, "If...we recognize the unborn as persons, then a woman's right to choose or a right to privacy doesn't matter [just like] she doesn't have a right to kill her child after it's born."[121]

The opinion of the Court in Roe v. Wade acknowledges its own weakness against "personhood" claims openly: "If this suggestion of personhood is established, the [pro-choice] case, of course, collapses, for the fetus' right to life would then be guaranteed specifically by the [Fourteenth] Amendment." The advocates of "personhood" have made much of that concession, citing it frequently as the source of their legal strategy.[122] In light of that, the dependence of pro-choice groups on the precedents set by and arguments of Roe v. Wade must be regarded as dangerous. If overturned--or even challenged on its basic assumptions--abortion rights would be left without any defense. That is the result the "personhood" movement strives to accomplish.

Unfortunately, the standard-bearers of the pro-choice movement have not risen to the challenge posed by the "personhood" movement--not even when faced with Colorado's Amendment 48 in 2008 and Amendment 62 in 2010. Instead, they have declined to state any definite positions on the extent of abortion rights or offer any substantive arguments for such rights.

For example, "Protect Families, Protect Choices," the major pro-choice coalition against "personhood" measures in Colorado, effectively campaigned against Amendment 48 in 2008 on the basis of its practical consequences. Yet its often-repeated campaign slogans--"It Simply Goes Too Far" in 2008 and "It Still Goes Too Far" in 2010--cede moral ground to the opponents of abortion. They suggest a compromise, as if some restrictions on abortion might be proper, albeit not the full ban demanded by "personhood" advocates. Perhaps the embryo or fetus should be granted legal rights in the third trimester. Perhaps abortions should be permitted only in cases of rape, incest, deformity, or risk to the life of the woman. Yet surely coalition members like NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado and Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains would oppose any such restrictions on abortion.[123]

Even when directly challenged to state a position on when rights begin in human life, spokespersons for "Protect Families, Protect Choices" skirted the issue. For example, in an online chat for the Rocky Mountain News, Crystal Clinkenbeard said:
It is incredibly hard to describe a blanket time when constitutional rights should apply. Reasonable people disagree passionately about when life begins. Amendment 48 does nothing to [resolve] that difficult social issue. Instead, it is more divisive. That kind of decision needs to be left to individuals to follow their own moral, philosophical beliefs.[124]
That answer is not mere evasion. It's wrong in a deeper way, in that it suggests that abortion rights can be founded on skepticism and relativism.

The most basic function of any government is to protect rights, and that requires constitutional provisions and laws specifying the nature and extent of rights. For the government to adopt a seemingly neutral stance on claims of rights, such that people would have to act based on their own opinions about who has what rights, would be anarchy. In theory, the pro-choice woman would be entitled to terminate her pregnancy, in accordance with her beliefs--just as the anti-abortion activist would be entitled to stop her by force, in accordance with his beliefs. The result would be violent conflict. In practice, however, such neutrality about rights usually amounts to an implicit denial of rights, in that the government would refrain from recognizing or protecting them. Yet the government might attempt to accommodate opposing views--and hence adopt a compromise position--exactly as it did in Roe v. Wade. Then, instead of the enjoying the benefit of sound jurisprudence, a society must endure persistent simmering political conflict.

"Pro-choice" advocates may seem to achieve their goals by this approach, because embryos and fetuses are not granted rights. Yet far from securing abortion rights, these skeptical arguments undermine their very foundation. Skepticism is an illusory basis for rights, easily defeated by even barely plausible arguments for "personhood." Moreover, such skepticism sets a dangerous precedent. Just imagine, for example, the violence that would be unleashed against innocent people if a government allowed people to "follow their own moral, philosophical beliefs" about the rights of women, gays, immigrants, and the elderly on the grounds that their rights constitute a "difficult social issue."

The government must take a stand on claims of rights. If embryos and fetuses are persons with rights, the government must actively protect them from harm. Conversely, if no such rights exist, then the government must actively protect women seeking abortions and the doctors who perform them from obstruction and violence by anti-abortion activists. People are only entitled to "follow their own moral, philosophical beliefs" in choosing whether to terminate a pregnancy or bring it to term if embryos and fetuses are not persons with a right to life. Yet that is the very question that these prominent pro-choice activists do not discuss, even when directly challenged by the "personhood" movement.

Ultimately, "personhood" measures are not wrong because they are too extreme, too divisive, or too intrusive--as typical pro-choice activists are wont to claim. Instead, they're wrong because embryos and fetuses are not human persons with the right to life. To understand why that's so, we must examine the core arguments for the "personhood" of embryos and fetuses.

Read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.


23 September 2010

Facebook Fan Page


I recently created a fan page on Facebook for the Coalition for Secular Government. If you're a fan of CSG, please "like" us!

And if you're opposed to "personhood" measures, you can "like" this page too!

Also, you can find CSG on Twitter here: @SecularCulture.


The 'Personhood' Movement Is Anti-Life: Part 11


This post is drawn from Ari Armstrong's and my new policy paper: The 'Personhood' Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception. I'm currently posting the full paper as a series of blog posts. You can read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.

The 'Personhood' Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception

By Ari Armstrong and Diana Hsieh, Ph.D
A policy paper written for the Coalition for Secular Government (www.SecularGovernment.us)
Published on August 31, 2010

Individual Rights and Abortion

As seen in detail in the prior section, if the agenda of the "personhood" movement were adopted and enforced by law, women and men would suffer serious harms, many permanent and some even life-threatening. These dire effects of "personhood" laws are no accident. They are the predictable result of violating the rights of true persons by fabricating rights for embryos and fetuses. Contrary to the assertions of "personhood" advocates, rights begin at birth. Only then does the newly born infant become a distinct human person with a right to life.

These truths about the origin of rights have been obscured by the facile semantic arguments in favor of "personhood," as well as by the inadequate and misguided arguments of today's typical defenders of abortion rights. In fact, rights are neither grants from God, nor favors from the Supreme Court. In particular, abortion rights, properly understood, are not based on a woman's supposed "right to privacy," nor subject to limitation by "state interests," as ruled in Roe v. Wade. And embryos and fetuses cannot be granted rights based on their potential to develop into human persons. The proper view of rights during pregnancy is based on fundamental facts about human nature. Those facts dictate that only pregnant women--not embryos or fetuses--have rights.

The Compromise of Roe V. Wade

In Roe v. Wade, the court upheld abortion rights based on a "right to privacy" but limited those rights by "state interests." Of laws that forbid abortion except to save the life of the woman, the court held:
[Such laws] violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which protects against state action the right to privacy, including a woman's qualified right to terminate her pregnancy. Though the State cannot override that right, it has legitimate interests in protecting both the pregnant woman's health and the potentiality of human life, each of which interests grows and reaches a "compelling" point at various stages of the woman's approach to term.[117]
In practice, the court ruled that states must leave abortion to "the medical judgment of the pregnant woman's attending physician" during the first trimester. Thereafter, state interests in the health of the mother and the fetus could override privacy rights. So in the second and third trimesters, states could "regulate the abortion procedure in ways that are reasonably related to maternal health." Also, when the fetus becomes viable outside the womb, states could "regulate, and even proscribe, abortion except where necessary, in appropriate medical judgment, for the preservation of the life or health of the mother"--due to their "interest in the potentiality of human life."

The court's decision was a compromise between "pro-choice" and "pro-life" positions. It permitted abortion, but only under certain conditions and subject to much state regulation. The decision denied the claim that "the fetus is a 'person' within the language and meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment." Yet at the same time, it rejected the principle that "the woman's right is absolute" such that "she is entitled to terminate her pregnancy at whatever time, in whatever way, and for whatever reason she alone chooses." It focused on the well-being of the mother, yet sought to protect the viable fetus too. And while the court refused to say that "a new human life is present from the moment of conception," that was only because it declined to "resolve the difficult question of when life begins."

The court's rationale for these compromises was murky, to say the least. The majority opinion asserted an undefined "right to privacy" based on "the Fourteenth Amendment's concept of personal liberty and restrictions upon state action." The opinion declared that right "broad enough to encompass a woman's decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy," yet did not explain why or how. Moreover, the strength of that right was held to depend on the stage of the pregnancy, for as the fetus develops, "the woman's privacy is no longer sole," such that "any right of privacy she possesses must be measured accordingly." So as the woman's privacy rights diminish, the state could intervene to promote its significant interests, such as "that of health of the mother or that of potential human life."

Compared to its appeal to the "penumbras" of the Bill of Rights for a right to privacy, the court was far more clear in its concern for the damage inflicted on women and families by abortion bans:
The detriment that the State would impose upon the pregnant woman by denying this choice altogether is apparent. Specific and direct harm medically diagnosable even in early pregnancy may be involved. Maternity, or additional offspring, may force upon the woman a distressful life and future. Psychological harm may be imminent. Mental and physical health may be taxed by child care. There is also the distress, for all concerned, associated with the unwanted child, and there is the problem of bringing a child into a family already unable, psychologically and otherwise, to care for it. In other cases, as in this one, the additional difficulties and continuing stigma of unwed motherhood may be involved. All these are factors the woman and her responsible physician necessarily will consider in consultation.
Given the weak ideological defense of abortion rights offered by the court, these policy concerns were likely of paramount concern in the decision. Yet as we shall see, such pragmatic objections to abortion bans cannot justify abortion rights, particularly not in the face of the claim that the embryo or fetus is a person with the same right to life as a born infant.

Read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.


22 September 2010

E-Book Version of "Personhood" Paper


I'm pleased to announce that Ari Armstrong's and my policy paper "The 'Personhood' Movement Is Anti-Life" is now available in "mobi" e-book format, in addition to PDF and HTML. You can download the mobi file, then copy it to your Kindle or other e-reader. On the iPad, the easiest version to read might be the PDF.

I offer my sincerest thanks to Roberto Sarrionandia for making this file conversion possible. I was pretty hopelessly lost until he offered his assistance.


The 'Personhood' Movement Is Anti-Life: Part 10


This post is drawn from Ari Armstrong's and my new policy paper: The 'Personhood' Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception. I'm currently posting the full paper as a series of blog posts. You can read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.

The 'Personhood' Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception

By Ari Armstrong and Diana Hsieh, Ph.D
A policy paper written for the Coalition for Secular Government (www.SecularGovernment.us)
Published on August 31, 2010

The Destructive Effects of 'Personhood'


Bans of Embryonic Stem-Cell Research

"Personhood" laws would ban all medical research that might harm embryos--even though such research may help save and improve the lives of countless born people. The National Institutes of Health summarizes some of the potential benefits of embryonic stem-cell research:
[S]tudying stem cells will help us to understand how they transform into the dazzling array of specialized cells that make us what we are. Some of the most serious medical conditions, such as cancer and birth defects, are due to problems that occur somewhere in this process. A better understanding of normal cell development will allow us to understand and perhaps correct the errors that cause these medical conditions.

Another potential application of stem cells is making cells and tissues for medical therapies. ...Pluripotent stem cells [from human embryos] offer the possibility of a renewable source of replacement cells and tissues to treat a myriad of diseases, conditions, and disabilities including Parkinson's disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, spinal cord injury, burns, heart disease, diabetes, and arthritis.[113]
Advances in mid-2010, while still in clinical trials, point to the potential benefits of embryonic stem-cell research--and the hostility such research generates from religious opponents of abortion. Abroad, London's Telegraph reports: "Researchers used more than a 100 spare embryos left over from treatment at fertility clinics to establish several embryonic stem cell 'lines.' One of those lines...was transformed into blood stem cells before they were converted into red cells containing haemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying pigment." Such research may lead to safe, abundant blood supplies. A Catholic critic who once ran for office with the ProLife Alliance party condemned the research as "proposed destructive use of embryos."[114]

In the U.S., CNN reports:
The first human clinical trial of a therapy involving embryonic stems cells has been approved [by the FDA] to proceed... The purpose of this first phase of research in humans is to test the safety of a therapy in patients with spinal cord injury. Candidates for the trial are those with the most severe injuries.[115]
In response to the development, the National Catholic Register pointed out that any destruction of an embryo defies official Catholic policy: "The killing of innocent human creatures, even if carried out to help others, constitutes an absolutely unacceptable act." While the article also discusses potential scientific limitations to the research, it presents a religious position that would oppose embryonic stem-cell research regardless of its effectiveness.[116]

In the name of "respecting life," "personhood" advocates would impose a death sentence on the real people whose lives might be saved through embryonic stem cell research.

Amendment 62 Is Anti-Life

Considering the logical implications of Colorado's Amendment 62 and comparable "personhood" laws, one can only rationally conclude that these proposals are profoundly anti-life, not "pro-life" as its advocates pretend.

To summarize the findings of this section, if fully enforced, Amendment 62 would threaten severe legal penalties, possibly including the death penalty, for intentionally harming a zygote, embryo, or fetus.

It would outlaw all elective abortions, forcing pregnant women to give birth against their judgment of what's best for their lives, and it would encourage dangerous illegal abortions.

It would outlaw medical intervention that might harm an embryo or fetus except in cases of severe risk to the woman's life, and even then the measure might strongly discourage doctors from intervening. In cases of risks to a woman's health only, or in cases of uncertain risk to life, Amendment 62 would threaten a doctor with criminal prosecution for taking action to help a pregnant woman.

Amendment 62 would ban abortion even in cases of rape, incest, and terminal fetal deformity.

It would ban any form of birth control, including the pill and IUD, that might prevent a zygote from implanting in the uterus, thereby forcing couples to resort to less effective forms of birth control and causing more unplanned pregnancies.

It would effectively ban fertility treatments, thereby preventing hundreds of Colorado families from having a child each year.

And it would ban embryonic stem cell research that could save or improve countless lives of actual, born people.

Calling Amendment 62 a "pro-life" measure, when it would actively damage, prevent, or destroy the lives of so many actual people, is an appalling inversion of the truth. Amendment 62 is an anti-life measure that should be morally condemned as such.

Read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.


21 September 2010

The 'Personhood' Movement Is Anti-Life: Part 9


This post is drawn from Ari Armstrong's and my new policy paper: The 'Personhood' Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception. I'm currently posting the full paper as a series of blog posts. You can read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.

The 'Personhood' Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception

By Ari Armstrong and Diana Hsieh, Ph.D
A policy paper written for the Coalition for Secular Government (www.SecularGovernment.us)
Published on August 31, 2010

The Destructive Effects of 'Personhood'


Bans of Common Fertility Treatments

"Personhood" laws would require dramatic changes to the treatment of embryos in laboratory settings, including fertility clinics and research facilities. Such changes further illustrate the harm Amendment 62 and like measures would inflict on real people as well as the absurdities that arise from granting legal rights to newly fertilized zygotes.

The Division of Reproductive Health of the Centers for Disease Control reports that nationally, "about 12% of women of childbearing age in the United States have used an infertility service." Fertility treatments account for more than one percent of all U.S. births. In 2007, the 430 fertility clinics evaluated helped women deliver 57,569 infants. Exclusively using in vitro fertilization, the seven clinics in Colorado helped 998 women give birth, led by the Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine in Englewood with 613 of those births.[110]

Those thousand Colorado mothers would not be mothers, and their children would not exist today, but for fertility treatments. "Personhood" advocates, who claim to "respect life," would outlaw such births.

Fertility treatments commonly involve the destruction of embryos. The same CDC report explains that, after egg development, the treatment "cycle then progresses to egg retrieval, a surgical procedure in which eggs are collected from a woman's ovaries.

Once retrieved, eggs are combined with sperm in the laboratory. If fertilization is successful, one or more of the resulting embryos are selected for transfer, most often into a woman's uterus..." The rest of the embryos are frozen or destroyed. Frozen embryos may be saved for later implantation or donation; however, "some embryos do not survive the thawing process."[111]

The Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine explains the process of in vitro fertilization:
In cases of normal sperm function, the eggs and several thousand sperm are placed together in a dish which contains a nutrient liquid. These dishes are kept in an incubator overnight and are examined under the microscope on the morning after the egg retrieval to determine which eggs have fertilized normally. ...

Some couples are fortunate enough to collect a large number of embryos from one egg collection. Any remaining viable embryos that are not transferred into the woman's uterus during the month of treatment may be frozen ("cryopreserved") in small tubes and kept in storage in the embryo laboratory for future use. Cryopreservation allows the patient to limit the number of embryos transferred "fresh" without discarding the unused embryos that could lead to a future pregnancy. The embryos may be kept in storage for several years. By transferring frozen-thawed embryos into the uterus, some patients have achieved 2-3 pregnancies in different years from just one egg collection.[112]
Notice that freezing embryos is considered to be a desirable part of fertility treatment. If a clinic attempted to fertilize only an egg or two at a time, that would dramatically reduce the effectiveness of the treatment and dramatically increase its cost. Because many eggs don't fertilize in any given treatment cycle, some women restricted to treatment involving single-egg fertilization would risk waiting too long to get pregnant at all, regardless of the cost. Alternately, a woman could risk becoming impregnated with several embryos, which could create severe health problems or produce more children than a couple is prepared to raise.

In the context of a "personhood" law, the basic problem with in vitro fertilization is that often not all of the embryos are transferred to the woman's uterus. Embryos in the lab could not be allowed to perish, nor languish in cold storage, as they would be considered persons with rights, and frozen embryos remain viable only for a few years. To eliminate such practices would render in vitro fertilization not worth doing for most infertile couples. So the practical result of Amendment 62 likely would be to shut down Colorado's seven reproductive clinics and put an end to those births.

Finally, consider how Amendment 62 would change the legal status of all the frozen embryos now in existence: they would suddenly become "persons" under the law, with all the rights of born infants. Presumably, women would be forced to implant (or donate for implantation) all their existing embryos--or face criminal charges. Moreover, if the biological parents of a frozen embryo die, presumably the embryo has full rights of inheritance, thereby reducing the share of any born children, though how the frozen embryo will grow up to collect remains a problem.

This fantastical scenario highlights the absurdity of treating an embryo as a person in the law. However, the farce of granting legal rights to frozen embryos ought not obscure the much more important point: fertility treatments bestow the gift of a child to many hundreds of Colorado women and men each year, a gift that Amendment 62 would smother.

Read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.


20 September 2010

The 'Personhood' Movement Is Anti-Life: Part 8


This post is drawn from Ari Armstrong's and my new policy paper: The 'Personhood' Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception. I'm currently posting the full paper as a series of blog posts. You can read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.

The 'Personhood' Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception

By Ari Armstrong and Diana Hsieh, Ph.D
A policy paper written for the Coalition for Secular Government (www.SecularGovernment.us)
Published on August 31, 2010

The Destructive Effects of 'Personhood'


Bans of Common Birth Control Methods

While the most obvious and severe effect of Amendment 62 and comparable measures would be a total ban on abortion, they would also profoundly affect the day-to-day sex lives of couples by restricting birth control. If a newly fertilized zygote is a person with full legal rights, then any action that prevents a zygote from implanting in the uterus must be considered murder. Thus, if fully implemented, "personhood" measures would ban any form of birth control that could prevent implantation of a zygote, most notably, the birth control pill--the most popular type of birth control--as well as intrauterine devices (IUDs) and "morning after" drugs.

A ban on the birth control pill would affect most sexually-active couples. A report from the Centers for Disease Control shows widespread use of birth control, noting that, as of 2008, 99 percent "of all women who had ever had intercourse had ever used at least one contraceptive method," and 82 percent "had ever used the oral contraceptive pill." The report continues: "The leading current method of contraception in the United States in 2006-2008 was the oral contraceptive pill. It was currently being used by 10.7 million women aged 15-44 years."[94]

The reason for the pill's popularity is not difficult to fathom; it is not only easy to use but also highly reliable. With "perfect use," the pill is more effective than sterilization and condom use, the second and third most popular forms of birth control; only 0.3 percent of women on the pill experience an unwanted pregnancy within the first year of use, compared to 0.5 percent for sterilization and 2.0 percent for condoms.[95] So women forced to switch from the birth control pill to condom use due to Amendment 62 would, given perfect use, experience around seven times the number of unintended pregnancies. Although effective, sterilization is surgically invasive and permanent, and it exposes women to an increased risk of ectopic pregnancy and other problems.[96] Amendment 62 would require many thousands of women to scramble to find a new method of birth control, yet none is likely to be as convenient and effective as the pill.

Personhood Colorado endorses laws permitting only birth control "that prevents conception," understood as "the union of a sperm and an egg." Forms of birth control that instead result in the destruction of a zygote should be called "abortifacients," not contraception, the organization holds. "Barrier methods of contraception that prevent the union of the sperm and the egg will not be outlawed," the group states, and presumably the same logic holds for sterilization, but other forms of birth control would be banned.[97]

How would birth control pills, IUDs, and "morning after" drugs violate "personhood" laws?

While most often the pill acts to prevent fertilization, sometimes it can prevent a zygote from implanting in the uterus. The manufacturers of the popular birth control pills Ortho Tri-Cyclen(R) and Trinessa(R) state in their prescription information:
Combination oral contraceptives act by suppression of gonadotropins [hormones]. Although the primary mechanism of this action is inhibition of ovulation, other alterations include changes in the cervical mucus (which increase the difficulty of sperm entry into the uterus) and the endometrium [the lining of the uterus] (which reduce the likelihood of implantation).[98]
Due to this potential for harm to zygotes, the birth control pill used by so many couples would have to be outlawed under "personhood" laws.

The IUD Mirena(R) also causes "alteration of the endometrium" and may "thin the lining of your uterus," which may inhibit implantation; moreover, the device may threaten pregnancies that do occur. The device is relatively effective at preventing unwanted pregnancy: "The reported 12-month pregnancy rates were less than or equal to 0.2 per 100 women (0.2%) and the cumulative 5-year pregnancy rate was approximately 0.7 per 100 women (0.7%)." (The device is intended for use for up to five years.) However, if the device fails the consequences can be serious. "Up to half of pregnancies that occur with Mirena in place are ectopic." Moreover: "Severe infection, miscarriage, premature delivery, and even death can occur with pregnancies that continue with an intrauterine device (IUD). Because of this, your health care provider may try to remove Mirena, even though removing it may cause a miscarriage."[99]

These facts have two main implications vis-a-vis "personhood" laws. First, because the IUD may prevent a zygote from implanting and may threaten a pregnancy if it does occur, the device should be banned, according to the logic of the measure. (A device that threatened the lives of up to half of all born infants, as the IUD does for zygotes by increasing the risk of ectopic pregnancy, would be banned as a public health menace.) Second, many women already use the IUD, and some might continue to use it (legally or illegally) after passage of a "personhood" law. In such cases, if pregnancy occurred a woman's doctor would face the threat of criminal prosecution for unduly threatening the life of the embryo. Because a doctor might damage an embryo either by removing the IUD or leaving it in place, some doctors might simply choose not to treat patients with IUDs and save themselves the associated legal risks.

Emergency contraception (or "morning after" drugs) also may prevent implantation of the zygote. The FDA discusses a common brand:
Plan B works like other birth control pills to prevent pregnancy. Plan B acts primarily by stopping the release of an egg from the ovary (ovulation). It may prevent the union of sperm and egg (fertilization). If fertilization does occur, Plan B may prevent a fertilized egg from attaching to the womb (implantation).[100]
The FDA approved the new prescription emergency contraception drug "ella" on August 13, 2010. A representative of the drug's manufacturer said, "We are clearly in the realm of contraception. We're not in the realm of pregnancy termination."[101] However, the FDA states, "It is possible that ella may also work by preventing attachment (implantation) to the uterus."[102] Hence, Gene Rudd, senior vice president of the Christian Medical and Dental Associations, told American Medical News, "There will be plenty of doctors who won't provide the drug because it probably does cause abortion."[103]

Many religious opponents of abortion welcome the prospect that Amendment 62 and similar measures would ban the birth control pill, IUD, and "morning after" pill. They accept the logical implications of their belief that fertilization creates a human person with full rights, as seen in the following articles. In 2008 the Wall Street Journal reported:
The Bush Administration has ignited a furor with a proposed definition of pregnancy that has the effect of classifying some of the most widely used methods of contraception as abortion.

A draft regulation, still being revised and debated, treats most birth-control pills and intrauterine devices as abortion because they can work by preventing fertilized eggs from implanting in the uterus. The regulation considers that destroying "the life of a human being." ...

With its expansive definitions, the draft bolsters a key goal of the religious right: to give single-cell fertilized eggs full rights by defining them as legal people--or, as some activists put it, "the tiniest boys and girls."[104]
ProLife.com, which advocates "ending abortion," hosts an article by J. T. Flynn which begins, "Physicians across America--and around the world--are now confirming that the Pill, IUDs, Depo-Provera and Norplant cause early abortions."[105]

Dr. Walter Larimore considered the "postfertilization effect" of the birth control pill, and he decided on religious grounds to stop prescribing it:
Finally, after many months of debate and prayer, I decided in 1998 to no longer prescribe the Pill. As a family physician, my career has been committed to family care from conception to death. Since the evidence indicated to me that the Pill could have a postfertilization effect, I felt I could no longer, in good conscience, prescribe it...[106]
To put the possible "postfertilization effect" of birth control methods in perspective, consider that natural or spontaneous abortion is a routine occurrence. Many zygotes fail to implant, and they are flushed out of a woman's body. Due to the difficulty of detecting when a woman's body rejects a zygote, estimates of prevalence range widely. One researcher summarizes, "In humans, it has been estimated that between 30% and 70% of conceptuses are lost before or at the time of implantation, without women being aware that they were pregnant."[107] Even after a woman becomes pregnant with the implantation of the embryo, the risks of losing the embryo by natural causes still hover around 10 to 25 percent.[108] Moreover, as William Saletan observes for Slate, activities that may inhibit implantation include breast feeding, drinking coffee, and exercising.[109] Hence, nature is by far the greatest cause of death for zygotes and embryos. Yet notice that such natural deaths are not lamented, nor regarded as a public health crisis--not even by those who think of the embryos as persons. In essence, "personhood" measures would ban forms of birth control that mimic the body's natural processes.

If a newly fertilized zygote is a person, then birth control that blocks implantation even sometimes must be outlawed, with its use and distribution criminally penalized. The same would apply to any medication that might harm a zygote, regardless of the costs in pain and suffering to women. "Personhood" laws would thus profoundly impact the reproductive lives of women even before implantation, the common marker of the beginning of pregnancy.

Read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.


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