If A Fertilized Egg Is A Person, Where Does That Lead?

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.


24 responses to “If A Fertilized Egg Is A Person, Where Does That Lead?

  1. Read “The Visitor” by Sherri Tepper, it discusses the fertilized egg is a human being extensively. There is a greater problem, this is another attempt to control women. If a fertilized egg is a person, then a woman would have to collect their menses each month because not all fertilized eggs adhere to the uterus. The effort would create a problem in the work environment, how can a woman work if she has to be home collecting blood. Great ploy to make men the dominant (controling) sex again.

    The fundamentalist jihadists are at it again, this time from a different angle.

    • If you follow the logic to its conclusion you do reach some pretty startling places. I’m often inclined to think that efforts to restrict birth control are grounded in a desire to control women.

  2. No. Nothing is like a person but a person. Sperm, eggs, embryos…they are merely human tissue. Sperm is male human tissue; eggs and fertilized eggs are female human tissue. The sale of human tissue is a dangerous practice with far reaching implications. If it becomes legal to sell or trade our own body parts and tissue anonymously then it follows that other people can sell or trade our body parts anonymously as well. This is clearly the case with tissue banks that buy sperm and eggs and resell them. This is clearly the case with individuals that buy sperm or eggs and resell them as well. What is to stop someone or clinics from creating embryos from the eggs and sperm of their most desirable vendors? Make the embryos in batches like a house brand. They do this in Europe already.

    I am uneasy with the current practice of treating embryos, sperm and eggs as property because, In my mind, human tissue always belongs to the human it came from. Philosophically speaking, it is not anyone’s place to own and control another human being in whole or in part. The person the tissue comes from is free to do what they want with it. With freedom comes responsibility for our actions.

    Giving up an egg is not the same as giving up a baby they are two entirely separate things and do not exist in the same time and space simultaneously. The purpose that one gives up an egg for is, however, the important part, and that is what determines if a person is giving up a baby or not.

    Each of us can decide that we will personally care for our biological offspring. We can say that our children are an extension of our own bodies and we are responsible for their young lives to the extent that we are responsible for our own, until they are old enough to take care of themselves. If that was what we wanted to do we would not donate our eggs for the purpose of creating offspring that we don’t intend to raise ourselves; that would be giving up the chance to raise one or several of the children we create. There in lies the rub. Sure they are giving up their eggs but the purpose for which it is the eggs are given determines whether or not they are also giving up their children. They could after all be giving up the egg for research that would not involve fertilization or gestation and in such an instance they could not rightly be said to have given up their offspring. This is why it is so profoundly disturbing when a person unwittingly becomes a biological parent through a mix up or theft of their gametes at a clinic; they did not intend for their gametes to be used to create children for others to raise and if their offspring exists in the world it should still be their responsibility to raise that child unless they give the child up for adoption.

    The embryo is female tissue belonging to the body of the female the egg came from and it should be her call as to whether or not the embryo develops into a baby or not just as it would be her call if her egg was fertilized inside of her body. I am aware that this is not the way its currently handled. I also think people who give up their gametes should have every right to recall them from whoever they gave them to at any time. They should have the right to decide that they no longer wish to create biological offspring.

    Is giving up an egg the same as giving up a baby? No. Of course not. Giving up an egg, is giving up an egg. Giving up sperm, is giving up sperm. Giving up and embryo, is gi

    • I think you highlight some important issues here. You’ve offered one way to look at things–human tissue is all the same, but shouldn’t be commodified (bought/sold). It’s also possible to say some human tissue can be commodified (hair, maybe?) but not other (perhaps organs that cannot be regenerated?) It’s possible to put eggs/sperm in a category all their own because they have a potential that other human tissue does not have. And you can even split up eggs and sperm because sperm supplies are limitless and so more like hair. Or you can put eggs/sperm with fertlized eggs/embryos/children as is suggested here. All of which is to say there is much to think about.

      • Well look, even hair…you want to know it was not cut off some poor hapless woman without her permission and sold. It is benign enough that nobody is really hurt, but truth be told its most often cut off cadavers so that those who sell it are not paying anything to anyone. It seems harmless enough; they are dead, they don’t need it but, I think it is disrespectful. I had extensions (worst decision of my life it made me bald) and Russian Virgin is what they call the really good hair that does not friz. Its expensive but not THAT expensive when one considers how long it would take to grow that much hair. Its like $80 a package. It has to be processed, colored, woven, packaged, shipped, marketed….if the companies were paying more than $5 for it I’d be surprised. They could not turn a profit otherwise and for that price how much you want to make a bet its not going to the donor to feed her family.

        • What you say is true, but it makes me want to distinguish between saying a think should not be bought/sold at all on the one hand (A child might fall into this category, though even as I say that I know we can fight about when what you do is the equivilant of selling a child. A kidney might as well–and perhaps this is less contentious.) and things that can be bought/sold be we want to be careful about where they are coming from (you could choose to put hair in this category.)

          For the moment I don’t intend to offer particular categorizations, only to suggest that there’s a lot of line drawing here, and that your point illustrates the need for yet another layer of line drawing–even for those things that we might have decided can be bought/sold.

          • I think to me the answer is very clear…in every instance the signed consent of the person the tissue or organ was harvested from needs to be obtained by whoever harvested it and that signed consent needs to follow the tissue or organ where ever it goes into the hands of the end user.

            I of course want it DNA cross checked to make sure the end user really got the tissue or organ from the body of the person who gave their signed consent. But even if it were spot checked like an IRS audit “surprise we’re here to DNA test your weave and you consented in advance as a condition of your purchase. Hold still this won’t hurt a bit”

            I say you can’t get donated gametes unless you agree to have the kid DNA tested against the donor. Don’t like it? You don’t have to pay someone to make a kid and let you raise it. Small price to pay to make it a safer environment for everyone.

  3. “If a fertilized egg is a person, then a woman would have to collect their menses each month because not all fertilized eggs adhere to the uterus.”

    This is a bit extreme but does illustrate that it is not possible for the government to document the existence of every fertilized egg the way the government is able to document the existence of every child born. The government can pass laws that offer equal legal protection to every child born, but it is only able to do that because all births are suppose to be recorded and all deaths are suppose to be recorded as well. While the government does document fetal deaths both natural and induced, it cannot hope to document every fetal death as some occur without women even knowing they’ve miscarried.


    • If I start to think about the sort of government surveillance that would be necessary to track the fate of all fertilized eggs I can make myself fairly paranoid. I suspect that rather than try that, the response would be to outlaw things that might impair the ability of a fertilzed egg to implant properly–like say IUDs.

      More generally, I do understand that as a matter of religious faith some people do believe that a fertilized egg is entitled to the same respect as a fully formed human. But this is a matter of religious faith where we, in this country, are free to have different beliefs. That’s part of why the amendment of a state constitution to include this provision seems abhorrent to me. Isn’t it really a codification of a religious view?

      • I would agree but the fact is that some people who are not that denomination of christians or even christians have come to accept that christian view, without recognizing the religious source. They think that this is the way things are and always will be accross time and place, until evil modernity and women’s rights came to ruin things! not recognizing that this is actually a minority pointt of view in human history.
        This is not to say that abortion is viewed cavalierly; it is an incredibly serious decision (to be made by the pregnant woman, not the government btw!) and the loss of POTENTIAL human life should be taken very seriously, however that is a far cry from saying it is murder.

      • That’s not a religious teaching. The Bible says that life is in the blood, and embryos have no blood in them. I don’t know of any references to “fertilized eggs” in any religion. Also, religions have a concept of ensoulment that clearly implies that the life enters the body as it is developing. So anyone that says this is their religious belief is wrong, it is just a modern sentiment created out of various other feelings.

  4. Julie – you are correct there is a great difference between a fertilized egg and implantation – which is when conception is determined, and one that makes these personhood amendments very scary – it was defeated in Colorado – but they are trying to get it on the books in all states – that is their goal and I doubt they will quit trying. It is in it’s most basic form an end-run at Roe vs Wade.

    The vagueness of the wording ensures that a court will have to determine what it all means so in reality – it isn’t the citizens of the state making a decision – it is up to the courts of the state.

    Hormonal birth control does not stop fertilization – it stops impantation. The Pill, IUD, and Ring may get swept up in the courts interpretation of the amendment and the morning after pill will be gone for sure.

    Miscarriages will be part and parcel – as I believe they are talking about doing a death certificate like they do for still-births. That makes them subject to investigation.

    Etopic and molar pregnancies – no help for the mother as long as their is a heartbeat exists now in Catholic Institutions – per the US Catholic Bishop Medical Directives. The same practice will most likely apply with a personhood amendment.

    Even if the courts rule the mother can be operated on to save her life, the choice of which proceedure – removing the fetus from the f tube or removing the f tube is up for debate. One could argue that removing festus is killing the fetus vs removing the f tube is a life saving measure.

    There are some really good debates going on about this and hopefully no personhood amendments pass. Doctors are speaking out and are concerned on their liablity caring for pregnant women.

    Another blow against women – despite their vocal cry that government is too big and all that stuff – when it comes to women they are all for government involvement.

    I find it amazing that the US has not passed the equal rights for women amendment – something like 80+ years of trying to get it passed?

  5. That is incorrect. Hormal birth control prevents ovulation. This includes the morning after pill. The morning after pill is most likely to FAIL when taken to late to prevent ovulation. Not that it matters to me. The majority of religions and cultures of the world do not consider a fertilized egg to be a person, this is strictly a christian thing and in my opinion therefore violates the separation of church and state.

  6. The Catholic church is against treating a woman for an ectopic pregnancy????? This is new to me. I had no idea.

  7. Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services – starts talking about this around page 25 or 26…

    The American Medical Association Journal of Medical Ethics talks about proportionate reason that is referenced in the above document.

  8. I wonder if they consider a dead body a person? Is it murder to bury a dead person instead of trying to bring him back to life? There are laws protecting the dignity of dead bodies that stop unethical experiments. The same thing would work with embryos, if the goal is to stop embryonic stem cell research. An embryo is like a dead body, in that it is a unique person and a human body, but it is not alive. Life begins when the heart starts beating, just like it ends when the heart stops beating. This should be simple.

    I fear that pro-life people are going to advocate for a genetically engineered embryo to be implanted rather than destroyed, if some scientist creates one somewhere. And all those embryos in freezers, are they going to demand that we find random women or artificial wombs to bring the life? It’s utterly ridiculous.

    • John! Where have you been? I dig on the idea of respecting the embryo and not researching on it but more from the viewpoint that it is a piece of a person whose rights need to be considered and protected rather than as its own individual person because truth be told the little buggers have not been born to be counted as people yet – they would still be part of the body of the woman whose egg was fertilized so her body her permission I’d think.

      • This is way off track, I know, but every now and then you see someone charged with doing something underage trying to defend on the “life begins with conception” point by arguing they are 9 months older than the date of birth suggests. You have to wonder if that might work if this amendment passes.

        • The 15 and 20 year old’s of that state will thank you for bringing this to their attention. You may have some pretty angry 49 year old’s to contend with though.

          • Oh they could be like years older huh? Depending upon how long they’d been in the freezer? My kid would be jealous if some kid in the second grade got their driver’s license but she couldn’t.

            • You know, I hadn’t even thought of that possiblity, but yes, I suppose they could. Mostly I’ve seen it where someone is drinking under age and is 20 years and six months old, but why not take it to the logical next step.

  9. One sign that society does not consider a fetus as a person is the lack of obituaries for miscarriages. Around a third of pregnancies end in miscarriages and yet they are never acknowledged in public rituals of mourning. Another point about frozen embryos is that most OBs do not consider an embryo as a fetus until it implants itself on the uterus wall. An embryo is only eight or sixteen cells and is not even visible to the naked eye. The Mississippi law is nothing more than to advance prohibitions against abortions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s