What You Need to Know about "Personhood" Legislation and Amendments
What You Need to Know about “Personhood” Legislation and Amendments

I received a call from a friend on the Resolve Advocacy Committee last week asking me to help spread the word about a constitutional amendment in Mississippi that can have a huge impact on the availablity of infertility treatment in that state.  Although this time it only affects Mississippi, this same type of legistation or amendment may well turn up in your state.  This committee has worked tirelessly to make us aware of how seemingly simple words can have drastic uninteded impacts.  As we talked I realized that they would be far better at explaining all this to you, so I am happy to turn this blog over to them today.

From the Resolve Advocacy Committee:

Unless you follow reproductive politics very closely, you may have missed the proliferation of “personhood” measures proposed in state legislatures throughout the U.S. during the past five years.  “Personhood” is the idea of assigning rights to a microscopic embryo—the same rights guaranteed to you or your husband or co-worker.  You may think “personhood” has nothing to do with you or your family. Indeed, you may think “personhood” is all about abortion rights and your beliefs on that topic are sacrosanct and unbending. But, the reality is, whether you consider yourself pro-life or pro-choice, “personhood”  affects everyone who has gone through infertility.
RESOLVE: the National Infertility Association follows these personhood initiatives closely and often asks constituents to contact their elected officials to express their opinion. In some cases, the personhood measure is in the form of a constitutional amendment in which the public votes directly.  A “personhood” measure in Colorado was defeated by popular vote, two separate years, by a large margin but in a few weeks, Mississippi voters will be asked to vote yes or no, on the following:

Initiative #26 would amend the Mississippi Constitution to define the word “person” or “persons”, as those terms are used in Article III of the state constitution, to include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the functional equivalent thereof.

It certainly sounds innocuous but what are they really being asked?  Why does this impact infertility patients? Because Mississippi voters are being asked to make medical infertility treatment
decisions for other families.

On November 8, 2011, when Mississippi residents cast their votes for their next governor, they will  be asked to render embryo disposition decisions for Mississippians who have completed their families but may have unused embryos in cryopreservation—telling them what they can and cannot do with their unused embryos. They will be asked to tell the infertility physicians in their state who
have collectively practiced medicine to the current professional standards in their field for more than fifty years, exactly how and when they can now practice medicine. They will be telling infertility patients that the current standard of medical treatment for infertility is not right and will be prescribing 1970’s –style medicine as the answer.
But they don’t know any of that. Most voters think they are just being asked to support the idea that life begins at conception.  But Initiative 26 goes much further than that and, for infertility patients, is actually anti-family.

At least one in every eight couples of childbearing age will have trouble achieving or maintaining a pregnancy. Infertility does not discriminate—it can strike anyone of any age, race, sex, religious affiliation or income level. We do not know who may need advanced treatment for infertility but we do know that IVF is a medical treatment which has been practiced for more than thirty years and has brought millions of babies into the world. Families built through IVF are no different than other families and should not be singled out to make a political point.

If embryos are full human children, anything that puts an embryo at risk could be a violation of law, even if the goal is the undeniable social good of helping someone have a baby. This law could impair or prevent doctors from practicing IVF in accord with the best standards of medical care, because those same standards may be deemed to pose too great a risk to embryos. We do not know which procedures may be determined illegal because of the possible risk to embryos but one thing is
certain: this bill will destroy a physician’s ability to practice good medicine. Doctors will eventually be forced to practice elsewhere.

Here are some of the questions that passage of Initiative 26 would pose:

1.  What happens if an embryo fails to develop in the laboratory?  Sometimes embryos will arrest and will cease to grow on day 1 or 2 of culture.  If these embryos are full human beings, will that event be a wrongful death or manslaughter?

2. Will embryo cryopreservation be permitted?  Ordinarily, one cannot freeze “human beings.”  If there can be no cryopreservation, then doctors and patients will be in a quandary: what if they have 5 viable embryos?  Would they all have to be transferred to the uterus, which could result in quintuplets?

3.  Will IVF then have to be practiced “Italian-style,” meaning that only 2 or 3 eggs could even be fertilized and all that do fertilize will have to be transferred?  But that is inferior medical practice, below the standard of care in this country.  It means the government will be making these complex medical decisions for patients.  Moreover, we know that Italian-style IVF fails more often while the rate of triplets (who are almost always born premature and small) skyrockets.  In other
words, it leads to poor outcomes for mothers and babies.

4.  What about the disposition of already-frozen embryos?  If there are persons with a right to life, will they have the right to be transferred to someone’s womb?  What if the biological parents have finished building their family – could they be forced to give their embryos to another woman for impregnation?

These are troubling questions and the answers are unclear.  What IS clear that with the prospect of intense governmental scrutiny of their medical practice and the threat of criminal sanctions, doctors will not want to practice reproductive medicine in MS and will leave.

It is estimated that more than 70% of natural pregnancies are not viable. Most of these end in either a very early miscarriage or the woman simply has her monthly cycle. In either case, most of these women never knew they were pregnant. Infertility patients that have to use IVF to achieve a pregnancy are being singled out.  Everyone creates unused embryos through the natural reproductive process in their own bodies.  Because of the necessity of their medical treatment,
infertility patients know when an embryo has been created and could now be held liable if their body does the same thing that another woman’s body does naturally.

Please help the voters in Mississippi make an educated decision. Read more about Initiative 26 at RESOLVE’s “Center for Infertility Justice.  A wonderful Mississippi mom has started Parents against MS26. Talk to people you know in Mississippi. Post about this on your Facebook accounts. But most of all, if you are in MS, vote no on Initiative 26. The time has come for everyone to take a stand for infertility patients everywhere. Say no to “personhood.”

Image credit: Great Education Colorado