Embryo Personhood Laws

November 7, 2011Carole 6 Comments »

In Mississippi, the Supreme Court approved a ballot initiative that, if successful, would define a fertilized egg as a human being. Specifically, if approved by the voters, the new law reads“The term ‘person’ or ‘persons’ shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.”

I blogged about this topic previously in the post “Reproductive Bills in the News” when Oklahoma tried (and failed)  to pass a similar bill. There are two problems with this legislation. First, it is based on assumptions about embryo biology that are not accurate. In order for a human being to be equivalent by definition to a fertilized egg, every fertilized egg must ultimately result in a living human. Those of us who work with human embryos every day know that many fertilized eggs do not result in human beings and that embryos can fail to continue their biological path at steps both early or late, before and after implantation in the uterus. Embryos routinely fail to cleave into multi-cellular organisms and can stay at the 2PN (fertilized egg) stage until they deteriorate. If they cleave once, there is no guarantee that they will cleave a second or third or thousandth time.

Furthermore, it is possible for an egg to start to divide after being chemically activated or stimulated by the intrusion of an additional sperm, both events that create embryos that are destined to end in failure, never ultimately creating any recognizable human being by any currently accepted definition. Yet these dividing embryos with no potential would be defined as “human beings”by this bill because it doesn’t even require normal fertilization but allows “cloning or equivalent thereof” to satisfy the requirements of fertilization.

The second problem with these attempts to define fertilized eggs as human beings is due to “unintended consequences” on current medical treatments. For instance, normally fertilized eggs that implant in the Fallopian tube instead of the uterus can not result in a living human because the embryos developmental program is doomed to fail if the embryo is not in the uterus. But before it fails, an embryo growing in the Fallopian tube will often cause a rupture of the tube and possibly fatal unstoppable bleeding in the  pregnant woman.

The only treatment for this deadly medical condition (ectopic pregnancy)  is to sacrifice the embryo by removing it (and often the tube) or by causing the embryo’s demise and reabsorption by the body by administering a cytotoxin. Remember that the ectopically growing embryo is doomed regardless of whether it’s mother lives or dies but if this embryo is legally a person, current treatments to save the mother would be legally defined as murder, not medicine,  and the mother would be doomed to die as well. Surely this is not what the citizens of Mississippi want?

Other possible repercussions from passage of these personhood laws is that common  in vitro fertilization procedures would likely not be legal. High pregnancy rates currently enjoyed by US IVF patients are due in large part to the fact that multiple eggs are recruited, fertilized and allowed to grow in vitro to a relatively advanced blastocyst stage, at which point the embryo is ready to successfully implant in the uterus. Having more fertilized eggs to start with than you are willing to transfer allows selection of the most robust embryos which increases the pregnancy rate. Ironically, medical treatments such as IVF which are designed to create human beings when other avenues to reproduction are closed could very well be rendered illegal by these so-called  “pro-life” personhood laws.

Excess embryos are created along the way in the current medical practice of IVF. These excess embryos are typically frozen for possible future use. Some of these frozen embryos may be ultimately discarded once the patient’s family is complete. If every embryo is arbitrarily defined as a human being, I expect that patients would lose the right to discard excess embryos because how do you “discard” a human being? You can’t. Patients would  have to cryopreserve them forever, making estate plans to continue cryopreservation and storage for generations after the originators of the embryos are deceased. There is no known “expiration date” for frozen embryos.   In Italy, where restrictions on IVF limit the number of eggs that can be fertilized to three and do not allow embryo freezing (only egg freezing), pregnancy rates are much lower than the average rates in the US because there is no natural selection of the most robust embryos for transfer.

Lab accidents causing the unfortunate demise of an embryo such as accidentally dropping a dish, failure of a freezing tank  or simply routine culling of  non-clinical (abnormally fertilized) embryos could all be re-classified as a kind of manslaughter under this redefinition of fertilized egg as person.

The article “Will Mississipi Ban IVF?” by Michelle Goldberg discusses the possible impact of personhood amendments on how IVF is conducted (or banned)  in Mississippi. Personhood USA, a political group is trying to get similar measures on ballots in Arkansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Montana, Colorado, Florida, Oregon, and Ohio. In the US, we have historically put a high premium on patient autonomy and held sacred the physician-patient relationship. Should our government be able to dictate the most personal reproductive decisions that its citizens’ make? In my humble opinion, laws that arbitrarily restrict medical practice and patient autonomy while preventing life-saving treatments really have no place in the United States.



© 2011, Carole. All rights reserved.

6 Responses to this entry

  • Anonymous Says:

    Appears as if US is progressing backwards. Scary!

  • Personhood for every fertilized egg; a cracked idea. « Education Respect Awareness Says:

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  • gingerandlime Says:

    Thanks for posting this. It’s amazing to me that what’s wrong with these bills isn’t immediately evident to the people proposing them, but somehow they don’t seem to think through the implications for even a minute. Either they’re creating mental exceptions for their family members (“surely *my* wife’s miscarriage wouldn’t need to be investigated”), or they’re really just that ignorant of the realities of reproductive biology. Either way it’s scary. There should be some kind of science literacy test for elected officials.

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  • Turtlemama Says:

    So glad you blogged on this topic. As a resident of Mississippi I was horrified by this proposition and was so thankful when it failed to win apprroval. It is interesting to hear your perspective since you work with embryos all the time. I think embryos contain the possibility of life. I really don’t know when you can say life begins. It’s on a continuum and not black and white.

  • Carole Says:

    I agree with you. It is a continuum and most definitely not black and white. In the lab, we are often surprised by embryos we thought didn’t have a chance who make it to term and others that looked text book perfect and didn’t make a baby. There’s still much to understand about the beginnings of life and human personhood –which are not necessarily the same thing.

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