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Placenta as 'Person' - Colorado's Personhood Amendment Ignores Basic Biology and Legal Issues

By November 6, 2009

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Colorado is stepping onto the slipperiest of slopes with ballot initiative 25, also known as the Colorado Personhood Amendment, which will severely curtail the rights of pregnant women by granting full legal rights to the cells of a fertilized egg. Initiative 25 would also extend personhood rights to eggs fertilized asexually, which would impact in vitro fertilization. And it falsely assigns 'personhood' without really understanding human development.

The initiative is less about promoting personhood and more about restricting reproductive choice. It's part of a nationwide effort by pro-life activist organization Personhood USA to introduce similiar legislation in every state in the U.S., a goal they announced earlier today. Founded by Cal Zastrow and Keith Mason, the two men are clear on their intent as they told MetroCatholic.com:

"Our goal has been to serve Jesus Christ and offer support to grassroots pro-lifers," stated Cal Zastrow, co-founder of Personhood USA. "Personhood USA exists to support, encourage, and assist Personhood movements across the country. We are excited to continue this fight against the dehumanization and murder of preborn children."

Attorneys affiliated with Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union say that Personhood USA is essentially opening up a can of worms with little regard for the legal ramifications. In Colorado, initiative 25 would amend the state constitution in more than 20,000 places, opening the door to potential criminal charges being filed against pregnant women who have a drink, are morbidly obese, attempt suicide, or use the Pill -- all situations that could pose a risk to the fetus. And a woman could be charged with a crime even if she didn't know she was pregnant at the time.

According to the Colorado Independent, the co-founders of Personhood USA could give a hoot about any of the above:

The legal questions surrounding the initiative at this point are not a priority to Personhood USA....

Presented with some of the hypothetical legal and rights issues related to the initiative, Keith Mason...one of the proponents of Initiative 25, said he didn't want to speculate on the particulars of the bill.

"I can't answer that because it's a hypothetical," said Mason. "It's like asking what would happen if a Martian came down and impregnated a woman on Earth. Let's talk about real issues."

Mason said he would "worry about the [legal] details later," after the bill had passed.

Let's talk about the real issues then, as Mason said.

The real issue is that any form of 'personhood' would ban all forms of abortion, even in the case of rape or incest; it would deny women the right to choose; and it would even make illegal many forms of contraception such as birth control pills, which prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus.

Personhood destroys the most fundamental of American democratic concepts -- the separation of church and state, a guiding principle of government that our founding fathers knew was critical to freedom and self-determination. Personhood is far more dangerous than we realize.

Personhood is misogyny wrapped up in the 'you can't touch this' veil of religion and puts forth a faith-based viewpoint which does not even represent the majority of those who are followers of Christianity and/or believe in God or a higher Being.

Looking at 'personhood' from a purely rational perspective, consider this; it's estimated that the human body has between 50 and 75 trillion cells. If we go back to basic biology, you'll remember that when the sperm penetrates the egg, the resulting single cell is called a zygote. At this point, Personhood USA refers to this material as a 'person'...but is it? Read on to refresh your memory about how embryonic development occurs:

The zygote spends the next few days traveling down the Fallopian tube and divides to form a ball of cells. The zygote continues to divide, creating an inner group of cells with an outer shell. This stage is called a blastocyst. The inner group of cells will become the embryo, while the outer group of cells will become the membranes that nourish and protect it.

The blastocyst reaches the womb (uterus) around day 5, and implants into the uterine wall on about day 6....The cells of the embryo now multiply and begin to take on specific functions. This process is called differentiation. It leads to the various cell types that make up a human being (such as blood cells, kidney cells, and nerve cells).

I've bolded the sentence that highlights the biggest flaw in the personhood argument -- a point I have yet to see any anti-choice advocate refute.

In the early stages of fetal development, only a small portion of the cells actually become 'the baby.' The other portion becomes the placenta, the support material that makes a full-term pregnancy possible but is 'thrown out' after birth -- in fact, it's often called 'afterbirth.' Afterbirth arises from embryonic tissue, but it is not a 'person.'

So personhood amendments, in effect, are elevating the cells of the zygote by labeling all of them a 'person' when many of them will never grow into a human being and lack the potential to do so. In fact, can anyone tell the difference between the cells of the zygote that will become the fetus and those that will develop into the placenta?

As for the fetus itself, cell differentiation doesn't begin until after day 6 following conception.

Keep this in mind as we go back and compare the woman with the zygote.

What rational, intelligent, thinking human being would say, "Yes, I agree that the rights of the 50-70 trillion cells of the mother should be superseded by the rights of the 32-celled zygote when it's not even clear which of those cells will become a baby and which will become the placenta which will be thrown out after birth."

That's what Personhood USA is saying, and it's not only an irrational argument, it's an incredibly emotional and uninformed position to take.

I'll support 'personhood' when Mason and Zastrow can look at a multi-celled embryo and tell me which ones will grow and emerge as a baby,  speak its first words, take its first steps, attend kindergarten, learn to read, go to prom, graduate from high school, get a job, pay taxes, marry or live alone, raise children (or not) and eventually die...and which ones will become the placenta and get 'thrown out.'

Because Personhood USA is adamantly opposed to throwing out cells -- it intends to empower them by making them 'persons' at an arbitrary point in embryonic development. But it ignores basic biology and attempts to slap a simplistic, emotionally-laced definition of 'personhood' on a cellular mass of genetic material, some of which may or may not have the potential to become human life.

And there's the rub. When we begin to falsely empower placenta cells -- in an attempt to protect human life and 'unborn babies' -- and trample the basic rights of women in the U.S., then something is terribly, terribly wrong. And smart, intelligent, rational women and men cannot stand aside and let this happen without a fight.

Comments

November 6, 2009 at 6:43 pm
(1) Christina says:

/applesause/

November 6, 2009 at 8:14 pm
(2) William Wilberforce says:

The dumbest article I have ever read. The fact that the human embryo makes its own placenta is proof that it is not a woman’s body. It is also logically flawed. The human person also makes hair cells and nails while in the womb, which will grow and fall out and that does not make the embryo, fetus, toddler, or biased feminazi online journalist any less of a person.

November 6, 2009 at 11:15 pm
(3) Jenny says:

Speaking of basic biology…there’s no such thing in science as a “fertilized egg”. The author should do just a tiny bit of research before publishing this idiocy. Also, babies make their own placentas, from the very beginning, which makes this article even less credible. It’s a point for the pro-life side.

November 8, 2009 at 1:16 pm
(4) womensissues says:

Jenny, if there’s no such thing as a “fertilized egg” in science then why is Lewis Wolpert, Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine in the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology of University College, London, using the term? His research interests are in the mechanisms involved in the development of the embryo: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/serpentine-edge09/wolpert_vid.html

Even Wolpert states, “I know that you all think about it perpetually that you come from one single cell of a fertilized egg. I don’t want to get involved in religion but that is not a human being. I’ve spoken to these eggs many times and they make it quite clear … they are not a human being.”

Wolpert and I use the term because the general public isn’t familiar with the term zygote, and as you make clear, even the science behind ‘basic biology’ seems to be questioned in the ever-contentious “when life begins” debate.

Here’s another viewpoint from PZ Myers, a biologist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota, Morris. He ‘incorrectly’ uses that same term in his very straightforward argument, “The fertilized egg is not a human life.”

William, you ignore the fact that the embryo is dependent on a woman’s body. Since the embryo cannot exist outside a woman’s body until after 23 weeks and only with EXTREME medical intervention (read “This Lovely Life” to see how wretched the life is of a preemie at the furthest edge of viability and the toll it takes on the family) its rights do not supersede that of the woman who carries it, especially when it hasn’t even implanted in the uterus, which it needs for life support. That’s why ‘personhood’ is a deeply flawed movement.

Allow the woman the right to determine her own course of action. That’s what basic human rights are about.

November 8, 2009 at 10:33 pm
(5) Jenny says:

From Dr. Dianne Irving, Professor at Georgetown University, Bioethicist:

“…the use of terms such as ‘ovum’ and ‘egg’–which would include the term ‘fertilized egg’–is scientifically incorrect, has no objective correlate in reality, and is therefore very misleading–especially in these present discussions. Thus these terms themselves would qualify as ‘scientific’ myths. The commonly used term, ‘fertilized egg,’ is especially very misleading, since there is really no longer an egg (or oocyte) once fertilization has begun. What is being called a ‘fertilized egg’ is not an egg of any sort; it is a human being.”

Most doctors and scientists, and every embryology book I’ve found, agree that life begins at conception, and that at conception, a new human with its own DNA is formed. That means that once the sperm meets the egg, it is no longer an egg, but already growing rapidly with gender, hair color, eye color, etc.

Any “expert” who claims that after conception, we are still talking about an egg is disingenuous and simply using their agenda to further dehumanize the new human being.

November 9, 2009 at 11:49 am
(6) womensissues says:

Jenny, life is continuous as PZ Myers points out (follow the link in my first response). Here’s what he says:

Life does not begin at conception.

It’s an utterly nonsensical position to take. There is never a “dead” phase — life is continuous. Sperm are alive, eggs are alive; you could even make the argument that since two cells (gametes) enter, but only one cell (a zygote) leaves, fertilization ends a life. Not that I would make that particular claim myself, but it’s definitely true that life is more complicated than the simplistic ideologues of the anti-choice movement would make it.

You quote Dr. Irving, but you fail to mention that her ‘science’ is heavily influenced by her faith. Her other credentials beyond teaching at Georgetown, from LifeIssues.net:

Dr. Irving’s professional activities include teaching positions at Georgetown University, Catholic University of America, and The Dominican House of Studies. She represented the Catholic Medical Association of the United States, and the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations, at the Scientific Conference in Mexico City, Mexico, October 28, 1999 and presented a paper on “The Dignity and Status of the Human Embryo”.

Hers is not an unbiased opinion. Of course she’s going to say ‘there’s no such thing as a fertilized egg’ because her agenda is to convince rational people into thinking that a multicellular zygote is ‘a baby.’ It’s not, and it won’t be for weeks. Nobody’s going to be passionate about ‘saving the life of a zygote’ or call liberals ‘zygote-killers’ because that doesn’t tug at the heartstrings.

The dependence of the anti-choice movement on certain loaded words such as ‘feminazis’ or ‘babykillers’ shows that when all is said and done, science is only convenient to a point, and after that, name-calling and hatred and unbridled aggression are the weapons of choice. Don’t you find it strange that people who love ‘babies’ and want to protect them think nothing of espousing hatred and venom online, at protests, and anywhere they can get away with it — towards already existing human life, namely me or any other woman who says, “Hey, you don’t have the right to take over my body and decide for me”? Don’t you think fewer women would have abortions if there were compassion and understanding instead of this hatred? Anti-choicers miss the boat; women wouldn’t have abortions if contraception were widely available and affordable, if women who were pregnant but unable to afford a baby were supported and aided through difficult times, if parents didn’t throw out their pregnant daughters out of shame and anger.

As for the “well, it’s human life” argument, tell me, what isn’t life? Sperm is life. An egg is life. A zygote is life. That’s what PZ Myers says above. But human life? Not entirely so. They are all multicellular life with the genetic material to determine cell differentiation that has the potential to develop into independently sustainable human life. Life is dependent on the organism ‘living’ independently – remove the support system and life dies. A woman’s body is the support system that sustains an embryo. Once a baby is born, man or woman can sustain a baby — infant formula has insured that infants can be raised without mother’s milk (though that is still best and preferable) so a father can function as ‘a mother.’ But until the fetus is born, it is dependent on the mother’s life for its own. Without extreme medical intervention, it is not viable, sustainable life for the first two trimesters. That is not a person. And a zygote is certainly not a person, just a mass of undifferentiated cells.

A zygote should not control a woman’s ability to determine her own life. It’s 32 cells against 70 trillion cells. It’s simply irrational. A zygote is not a person and should not have ‘rights’ that supersede a living, breathing, contributing member of society who simply has the misfortune of being female and is therefore forced to endure the ‘I know better than you’ attitude of complete strangers who don’t know her, don’t care about her, but think they should be the ones to decide her fate nonetheless.

November 11, 2009 at 2:30 am
(7) blu-k says:

Thanks for this article – really makes the issues clear about the legal ramifications of such backwards policy.

November 11, 2009 at 12:25 pm
(8) Troy Kirkendoll says:

Are these pro-lifers intending to institute an Islamic style regime in this country? This is what these type of policies giving women no control over their own bodies imply. In those countries women’s rights have been driven down to the ultimate in degradation–13 year olds are beheaded for flirting.
It’s a slippery slope. Is that the kind of religious government
you want for your own daughters?

November 11, 2009 at 12:52 pm
(9) OzarksUSA says:

Great article, Linda. Your argument is clear and rational while the position of Personhood USA obviously isn’t.

November 11, 2009 at 1:16 pm
(10) Mike says:

What is logically flawed, William Wilberforce, is that people are willing to give a bundle of cells a few days old that may, OR MAY NOT, develop on its own into a human baby, EQUAL legal footing as a living, breathing person. Why is this bundle of cells legally equal to someone’s fingernail clippings? If the zygote – who has never done anything good OR bad, never breathed, never seen nor heard no cried nor felt physical nor emotional pain – is legally equal to a forty-year-old mother or father of four whose work in the medical field has saved thousands of lives (this is a hypothetical, of course), then surely you must think all life is equal. So I’d assume then that you are against the death penalty for ANY crime. Si this true. If so, you are a hypocrite.

November 11, 2009 at 2:33 pm
(11) Barbm says:

So if a fertilized egg is a person, I can insure each one for $100,000. and then if I have 3 implanted and only one goes to term I can collect $200,000 from the men who run the insurance company, right?

November 11, 2009 at 6:00 pm
(12) Deborah Kelly says:

I am the co-founder and was the co-owner of the Tallahassee Feminist Women’s Health Center, which we opened in 1974. Our foundational stance was that a woman is the only person who should have control of her body. We also knew that eventually abortion would again become illegal in the U.S. That was why we worked so hard to take it outside of the control of politicians and the medical establishment. To further that goal we provided instruction in vacuum aspiration to several thousand women via our self-help clinics.(The abortion clinic we operated was to be a short-term solution to the choice issue. However, we did provide instruction in vacuum aspiration to the doctors we contracted with. We knew that they would be providing abortions as physicians and wanted them to do them correctly.)

When the Hyde amendment was being pushed through Congress, women of the dominant culture completely abandoned poor women (disproportionately represented by women of color), treating abortion as just another commodity available to those who could afford to pay for it. The staff of the FWHC barely had enough income to pay our bills, but provided low-cost and free procedures to those who needed them.

I find it disingenuous of elitist women to now opine about the unfairness of the process of the dismantling of “their” right to abortion when they were the ones who thought begging men (a.k.a. politicians) for that right was the way to go as opposed to working in solidarity with all women.

As an added note, I must share that several of those people who called themselves “pro-lifers” as they marched back and forth in front of our health center (where we also provided prenatal care and labor and delivery services) harassing our clients, had no problem navigating their way into our back door to get their abortions.

Deborah Kelly

November 11, 2009 at 8:01 pm
(13) Anne says:

So I’m curious: At what point would you consider those cells to have turned into a baby, a “person” if you will, eligible for rights under the law? Just when do those living cells turn that magic corner and become a human being?

November 12, 2009 at 4:56 pm
(14) womensissues says:

Anne, do you think that fetal cells (aka “life”) should have full human rights under the law such as the right to sue the mother? Most women I know won’t even tell people they’re pregnant until after the first trimester because the chances of spontaneous abortion (miscarriage) are significantly higher at this time.

Let’s say we grant the zygote (the result of a sperm uniting with an egg) full personhood right at the point of conception. The zygote travels down the fallopian tube but fails to implant in the uterus. That ‘person’ failed to develop into viable human life, but it ‘was’ life for 5 days. Under a personhood law, does that mean that the zygote could sue its mother for failure to implant?

Suppose a morbidly obese mother is told by her physician that she needs to restrict her weight gain during her pregnancy because it could compromise the baby’s health? Suppose that woman continues to eat fast food, fattening foods, unhealthy foods, and she gains weight. Can the ‘baby’ then sue her because it’s a person with full legal rights? And suppose in the midst of that lawsuit the mother miscarries. Does the lawsuit just go away because the plaintiff ‘died’? Or can the mother be charged with murder?

Before we vote for these types of laws we have to approach them with common sense and understand the full ramifications.

Currently we live in a country where each year, over 1700 children die because of abuse and neglect.

Wouldn’t it be prudent to focus our attention and concern on improving the lives and living situations of children already living ‘outside’ their mothers who are being abused, before we start to go after women who are ‘abusing’ their children inside the womb?

Since when does incomplete, unborn, potential life garner more respect, care and attention than existing life (real live children of all ages) in our communities who live under intolerable conditions and are powerless to change their lives or end their abuse? I don’t see any pro bono attorneys lining up to defend their rights.

Here’s the sad reality. Children are born to parents who will intentionally kill them. One of the worst stories is Nixmary Brown. Read what happened to her and tell me you wouldn’t support her mother’s access to abortion if it would have prevented her from having a child she ended up molesting, beating, starving, and killing. No child deserves this, and it’s a travesty that we ignore this and focus on a non-issue, which is what personhood it.

The moment every child in this country who is born is wanted and loved – the moment there’s no need for foster care because no parent abuses or abandons her child – the moment all children live in happiness and innocence – that’s the moment I’ll say, “There’s no need for abortion.”

Until then, don’t force babies to be born into circumstances that will cause them years of pain, torture, fear, and horror. Because women who want abortion and are denied access to abortion don’t automatically grow up to be Mother of the Year just because a baby is now part of their lives. And we can talk about adoption all we want, but very, very, very few women will ever give up their child. And if the child is a baby of color and developmentally disabled due to alcoholism and/or drug abuse, the likelihood of adoption is exceptionally slim. This is no life for a child, is it?

November 12, 2009 at 10:21 pm
(15) Shazza says:

Why do these men — or any man, for that matter — think they should have any say whatsoever on this issue? The same men who get apoplectic at the thought of abortion are the selfsame who advocated a “Crusade” in Iraq in which at least hundreds and perhaps thousands of children have been killed. These are the same men who advocate the death penalty, despite the very real possibility of miscarriage of justice, bigotry or plain old stupidity resulting in a guilty verdict. Men will “deposit” their sperm in the most amazing places: bedsheets, showers, and various variations on the “pay-per-view”- type porn shops and they don’t seem to be terribly upset that these potential “living cells” have just been wasted. If they were concerned, would there be “accidents”, acts of rape or incest, “date-rape”, or prostitution? No, the fact is, this issue has nothing to do with the “right to life” and is an attack of one gender on another, for the sole purpose of domination. So, Boys, every sperm is not sacred, and while I personally deplore the use of abortion as birth control, the fact is no one who does not “own” a uterus should have the right to so much as an opinion about abortion.

November 13, 2009 at 2:12 pm
(16) Deborah Kelly says:

Actually, no correlation has been shown between a woman carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term and subsequent abuse of that child. Even if such a correlation were found, it would not prove any sort of cause and effect relationship. Correlational studies have never been considered to have any scientific validity.

I know of very few people who were born as a result of planning on the part of their parents. Blaming women for the abuse of children should not have any place in discussions concerning patriarchal limits on our lives, reproductive or not. In general, women still do not have the power to say “No” and have that honored or respected.

Audre Lorde wrote, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” If we buy in in any way with the rhetoric of those in power, we will wind up cycling back to the total elimination of our, now, very limited right to choose. A larger perspective would include the abuse, i.e. killing, of children 1000s of miles away being done on our taxpayer dime.

Deborah

November 15, 2009 at 10:56 am
(17) Also From Tallahassee says:

I was one of those abused and neglected children, and I am so very glad and thankful abortion was not yet legal when I was conceived . I survived my childhood, educated myself, attended college and I have lived a wonderful life and given birth to my own two beautiful boys who never suffered abused in any way. The anti-abortionist are all about stopping the pain they perceive while denying the pain they inflict upon an unborn baby, whose future is perhaps like mine. The world view of the abortionist is a sad, negative portrait of unnatural cruelty.

November 21, 2009 at 12:16 am
(18) Bob says:

I’m glad I scanned the comments before sitting down to assess the author’s arguments… I saw her comment about Dr. Irving’s faith influencing her science. Laughably, she quotes PZ Myers before this, one of today’s most radical, fundamentalistic, and frankly hate-filled atheists… but no mention of how his worldview may influence his arguments. No idea who this author is, but it’s hard to take her seriously after that ironic juxtaposition.

April 28, 2010 at 11:48 pm
(19) A WoMaN says:

The truth of the matter is, once the sperm and the egg get together, if left alone, become a fetus that is essentially a PARASITE to its mother, robbing her body of nutrients to further its own survival. Because of this, she can become very sick, many pregnant women develope anemia, or need to be put on daily multi-vitamins in order to help put back what the baby is taking for itself.
If you are not mature enough, if you do not have the motherly instinct, if you are not in a stable relationship or all of the above, carrying the pregnancy to term seems inconceivable to you. And provided you make that “choice” immediately, before the thing has had a chance to develope a nervous/sensory system and is capable of feeling pain, no one should stop you from having it removed.
THE REAL PROBLEM WE NEED TO DISCUSS IS preventing these unwanted pregnancies. Many women, myself included, have a problem with taking oral contraception every day. It messes with our menstrual cycles, makes us nauseous, makes us break out in acne, gain unwanted weight, and those are just the simple unwanted side effects. Let’s not forgot the RISKS OF BLOOD CLOTS & HEART ATTACK.
Therefor many of us do not take “the pill”. Some men, as sexual partners are very disciplined and have no problem wearing a condom. Some men do not, will not wear them, they complain they don’t like how they feel, or that they can’t feel anyting at all and then you’re playing the Russian Roulette game of The Pull Out method.

IF THERE WERE BIRTH CONTROL FOR MEN; something that was effective in temporarily haulting the production of Semen until the man is ready to start a family, there wouldn’t be so many abortions every year. A Birth control pill for Men was developed a few years ago, it was used on a trial group of Men for a short period of time. They reported feeling naseous, fatigued, and a couple other side effects that WOMEN are expected to endure – and it was never released to the mass markets.

Women do not climb on top of themselves and get pregnant. Men should be JUST AS RESPONSIBLE for preventing unwanted pregnancies. But no, you guys can’t be inconvenienced or sacrifice your own pleasure.

April 30, 2010 at 11:10 pm
(20) Veronica says:

This is the most atrocious initiative ever considered. I hope that all Coloradans fight to defeat this. Anti-abortionists: this is the United States of America, NOT Saudi Arabia or Iran where government completely controls women. Take your extremism elsewhere!

November 3, 2010 at 10:47 am
(21) Brandy M Miller says:

Those who oppose the personhood amendment are the ones ignoring basic biology in favor of politics. Everyone on this forum knows very well that if that “fertilized egg”, known as a zygote in medical terms, is left to develop in the natural order it will need a name in about nine months. The fact that there will be a placenta forming out of that single cell does not mitigate or change the fact this is a human person at all. The method of conception – whether rape or incest – does not alter the fact that this is a human being. Compassionate care for rape and incest victims does not include killing their unborn child. The only person who is protected by abortion after rape or incest is the person who committed the crime, certainly not the mother. She will be left with emotional and possibly physical scars that last a lifetime. She will NEVER forget.

Death is not the best thing we have to offer to “unwanted” children. I’ve been abused, I’ve been in poverty, and I survived and became the better for it. My brother was the product of rape – my mother was the better for his life having been produced, not the worse. It healed her heart in a way that no therapist could. You who would choose death for the unborn deserve a Darwin award – after all, the society that refuses to reproduce will be replaced by one that does not.

November 7, 2012 at 9:13 pm
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November 14, 2012 at 11:16 pm
(23) Diane a child of God says:

I would like to comment on the following sentence….

‘In the early stages of fetal development, only a small portion of the cells actually become ‘the baby.’ The other portion becomes the placenta, the support material that makes a full-term pregnancy possible but is ‘thrown out’ after birth — in fact, it’s often called ‘afterbirth.’ Afterbirth arises from embryonic tissue, but it is not a ‘person.’

So let me get this right, because there are more cells that make up the placenta then there are cells that make up ‘THE BABY’ makes ‘THE BABY’ not A BABY or ‘PERSON’ as you would call him or her. I just have on question for Ms. Lowen where did you go to school so I can make sure I don’t sent my kids ‘persons’ there.
I wonder if God will accept that logic when you meet Him.

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