There’s an article in today’s NYT about a proposal to amend the Mississippi state constitution to declare that fertilized human egg is a person. While the drive is primarily fueled by those opposed to abortion, the implications of the amendment are obviously broader and touch on some of the topics I often address here.
One obvious impact would be on IVF. In IVF, embryos are created in a laboratory and then transferred into a woman’s uterus. (Do keep in mind that some heterosexual couples do this with their very own gametes, so there’s no necessary connection to all the commodification issues that we’ve been talking about with regard to sale/purchase of sperm and eggs.)
Now there’s been a lot written about the number of embryos you should transfer. While it might seem that transferring more than one embryo increases the likelihood that a viable pregnancy will result, this doesn’t seem to be so. At the same time, multiple embryo transfers do increase the odds of the birth of multiples–twins, triplets, etc. This is of concern because multiples are more likely to have health issues. So increasingly, the best practices suggest that only one embryo be transferred at a time.
But embryos are not created one at a time. Instead, they are created in batches. Then the embryos created are inspected and the ones that are the most likely to result in a viable pregnancy are selected for transfer. This is a done through a process called PIGD or PGD and I’ve written about it before. It does raise a variety of ethical questions as it allows you to select one embryo over another because of specific traits, but it still seems to me that picking one that has a high likelihood of developing into a healthy child is not a bad idea.
In any event, it’s pretty clear that the proposed Mississippi constitutional amendment would drastically effect this process. If you created a batch of embryos, each of them would now be deemed a person. Could you choose not to transfer any of them–even if one had only a 5% chance of developing into a viable fetus? Could you leave them in storage for later use? Surely you cannot just destroy them. And if you were going to give them to someone else that would need to be an adoption. (Shades of the Georgia statute proposed after the whole Octomom furor.)
Then suppose an embryo is transferred by does not implant. (This obviously happens with some frequency.) This would now be considered a human death. I can imagine that we might be expected to determine whether the death resulted from culpable conduct on anyone’s part–including actions of the medical personnel involved as well as the woman into whose uterus the embryo is transferred. This means that on top of the existing stresses of participating in IVF, the couple involved might have to consider whether failure to produce a pregnancy could be viewed by some zealous local prosecutor as a criminal act.
Actually, the implications of this amendment go beyond IVF and ART. As I recall my basic human biology, in unassisted human reproduction, fertilization of the egg takes place before the egg reaches the uterus. Some fertilized human eggs never implant. Some implant but do not develop properly, as result of which miscarriages may occur. I don’t think anyone fully understands what determines the outcomes of each stage of this process. If all of those fertilized eggs are considered to be human beings, however, we could well come back to questions of legal culpability for the death of a person. If it is asserted that something the woman did prevented the fertilized egg from implanting, she could be charged with murder.
I don’t think anyone can say with certainty what will result if this amendment passes, but it there are some scary possibilities out there and frankly, the assurance of the supporters that they are really interested in abortion isn’t all that reassuring.