This post is drawn from Ari Armstrong’s and my new policy paper: The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception. I’m currently posting the full paper as a series of blog posts. You can read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.

The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception

By Ari Armstrong and Diana Hsieh, Ph.D
A policy paper written for the Coalition for Secular Government (
Published on August 31, 2010

Individual Rights and Abortion

Rights in Pregnancy

On its surface, the secular argument for “personhood” might seem so simple as to be unassailable. Yet in fact, that simplicity conceals fatal defects in its implicit view of the nature and source of rights. Rights are not inherent in human biology: the right to life is nowhere stamped on our DNA. Rather, rights are principles identifying the freedoms of action required for human flourishing in a social context. As we shall see, such rights can and do apply to born infants, but they cannot be legitimately or coherently extended to embryos or fetuses.

The basic biological facts cited in the secular argument for “personhood” laws are not controversial. The fertilization of an egg by a sperm creates a new human life, distinct from that of its genetic parents. By an active, complex, and gradual process of development, that zygote may grow into an embryo and fetus, emerge from the womb as an infant, develop through childhood, mature into an adult, and finally age until death. However, contrary to the argument for “personhood,” that process of biological development does not establish that the zygote, embryo, or fetus is a human person with a right to life. Why not?

“Personhood” advocates assume that each and every human life, whatever its qualities or situation, must be a person too. They offer no argument for or explanation of that view. Yet in fact, the concepts are distinct, such that they need not perfectly coincide. In other words, the concepts of “person” and “rights” may not apply to all forms and stages of human existence. The distinction is simple. The concept of “human life” or “human being” used in the first half of the argument for “personhood” is purely biological. It identifies an organism as part of the human species. The concept of “person” used in the second half of the argument for “personhood” concerns politics. It identifies some entity as entitled to claim rights. To slide between these two distinct concepts using the term “human being”–as “personhood” advocates consistently do–is to commit the fallacy of equivocation.

The scope of the political concept “person” cannot be specified by science. That is a question for philosophy, to be answered based on an objective theory of the nature and source of individual rights. That these biological and political concepts might not coincide perfectly is hardly appalling, as “personhood” advocates suggest.[143] Rather, the very purpose of the political concept “person” is to enable us to specify the scope of rights apart from any rigid biological criteria.

The advocates of “personhood” dogmatically assert that every human life is a person for a very simple reason: their secular defense of “personhood” is mere veneer on a deeply religious worldview whereby rights can only be understood as gifts arbitrarily bestowed by God. By creative and selective readings of their scriptures, combined with distorted appeals to America’s founding principles, the advocates of “personhood” believe that God bestows the right to life at conception. That is why they consider embryos and fetuses persons. However, that is a matter of faith, not rational conviction–and unsurprisingly, the facts show otherwise. Hence, even the secular argument for “personhood” is ultimately religious at its root.

To understand the rights applicable to pregnancy, we must sketch an objective theory of rights. In short, the rights of persons are not gifts from a divine creator, nor found in scripture, as conservatives often imagine. Nor are rights mere entitlements and permissions bestowed and rescinded by majority vote, as modern liberals suppose. Rather, rights are principles identifying our proper freedom of action. And they are rooted in facts about human nature, particularly the conditions for survival and flourishing in society.[144] How so?

Humans cannot survive and flourish by tooth and claw–nor by our feelings, instincts, or faith. We live by exercising our distinctive capacity to reason in order to produce the values required for life–or we perish. That simple fact of human nature is the source of our rights. As Ayn Rand explains:

Since man’s mind is his basic tool of survival, his means of gaining knowledge to guide his actions–the basic condition he requires is the freedom to think and to act according to his rational judgment. …If men are to live together in a peaceful, productive, rational society and deal with one another to mutual benefit, they must accept the basic social principle without which no moral or civilized society is possible: the principle of individual rights.”[145]

So what are rights? Again, Ayn Rand explains:

A “right” is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context. There is only one fundamental right (all the others are its consequences or corollaries): a man’s right to his own life. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action; the right to life means the right to engage in self-sustaining and self-generated action–which means: the freedom to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfillment and the enjoyment of his own life. (Such is the meaning of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.)[146]

In essence, “to recognize individual rights means to recognize and accept the conditions required by man’s nature for his proper survival.”[147]

On this objective theory of rights, a person’s rights are absolute and inalienable, yet they arise in and pertain to a social context. That’s because individual rights are the most basic principle of justice in a society. They’re neither innate qualities–nor gifts bestowed by divine powers, constitutional tradition, political leaders, or voters. Moreover, genuine rights cannot conflict, nor require the sacrifice of some persons to others. That’s because rights protect each person’s power to pursue his own life and happiness, free of forcible interference from others. Rights are freedoms to action, not entitlements to goods and services provided by others, nor duties imposed on others.

Given this understanding of the nature and source of rights, we can now ask: Is an embryo or fetus a person with a right to life, like an infant? No. To see why not, we must compare its basic nature and situation as it develops through pregnancy to that of a born infant.[148]

From the moment of fertilization to its implantation in the womb a few days later, the zygote consists of a few largely undifferentiated cells. It is invisible to the naked eye. It has no human organs, and no human form. It has no brain, and so no capacity for awareness or emotions. It is far more similar to a few skin cells than an infant. Moreover, the zygote cannot develop into a baby on its own: its survival beyond a few days requires successful implantation in the lining of the woman’s uterus. If it fails to do that, it will be flushed from her body without anyone ever knowing of its existence.

If the embryo matures normally after implanting into the lining of the uterus, it gradually develops primitive organs. Yet its form is not distinctively human in the early stages: it looks very similar to the embryo of other species.[149] As it develops its distinctive human form, the fetus remains wholly dependent on the woman for its survival. Even with the most advanced medical technology, many fetuses born in the 22nd to 25th week of pregnancy will die, and many of those that survive will suffer from “some degree of life long disability, ranging from minor hearing loss to blindness, to cerebral palsy, to profound intellectual disability.”[150] So before viability, the fetus is not capable of an existence independent of the pregnant woman.

After 26 weeks, when a fetus would be viable outside the womb, its organs continue to mature in ways critical to its survival and well-being after birth. It is aware, but that awareness is limited to the world inside the womb. Most importantly, however, so long as the fetus remains within the woman, it is wholly dependent on her for its basic life-functions. It goes where she goes, eats what she eats, and breathes what she breathes. It lives as she lives, as an extension of her body. It does not interact with the outside world. It is wholly contained within and dependent on her for its survival. So if the woman dies, the fetus will die too unless delivered quickly. The same is true if the fetus’s life-line to her body is disrupted, such as when the umbilical cord forms a tight knot.[151] A fetus cannot act independently to sustain its life, not even on the basic biological level possible to a day-old infant. It is thoroughly and solely dependent on the woman in which it lives.

That situation changes radically at birth. A baby lives his own life, outside his mother. Although still very needy, he maintains his own biological functions. He breathes his own air, digests his own food, and moves on his own. He interacts with other people as a whole and distinct creature in his own right, not merely as a part of a pregnant woman. He can leave his mother, either temporarily or permanently, to be cared for by someone else.

These important differences between the mode of life of the zygote, embryo, and fetus on the one hand, and the born infant on the other, show that the former cannot be persons. Rights, in other words, cannot be applied until birth. Why not?

First, the utter biological dependence of the zygote, embryo, and fetus on the pregnant woman shows that, until birth, it is not yet living its own life, but rather partaking in the life of the woman. It exists as part of the pregnant woman, not as an individual in its own right. Yet rights pertain only to individuals, not parts thereof. Such is the case, even when the fetus would be viable outside the womb. Even then, it is only a potential individual, not an actual one. The fetus only becomes an actual individual when birth separates it from the woman’s body. Until then, it cannot be a person with a right to life. The pregnant woman, in contrast, is always an individual with full rights.

Second, the zygote, embryo, or fetus does not exist in a social context until birth. Due to its enclosure within the body of the pregnant woman, the new life cannot interact with other people: it experiences only muffled sounds and indirect pressure through the woman. It cannot be touched or handled, nor can it even engage in the primitive communication possible to infants. Even the pregnant woman cannot directly interact with her fetus, as she will do with her newborn infant. Until birth, she can only act as a biological host to the life inside her, not as a mother. A woman, in contrast, lives in society whether pregnant or not–and her rights are therefore absolute and inalienable.

Given these facts, to ascribe any rights to the zygote, embryo, or fetus before birth is a profound error. It is not a person–or rather, it is only a potential person, not an actual person. To suppose that mere potentiality is sufficient is to commit the fallacy of the continuum. The fact that a zygote may develop into a born infant does not prove the zygote to be the same thing as a born infant–any more than an acorn is an oak tree and a caterpillar is a butterfly. As philosopher Leonard Peikoff observes, treating a zygote–a potential person–as though it were an actual person makes no more sense than treating an adult human–a potential corpse–as though he were an actual corpse.[152]

The conclusion that rights begin at birth is confirmed by the serious conflict between any rights ascribed to the embryo or fetus before birth with the rights of the pregnant woman.

The pregnant woman’s most fundamental right–her right to life–is not merely a bar against murdering her. Her right to life encompasses all the actions that she deems necessary to promote her flourishing and happiness, provided that she does not initiate the use of force against others (and hence violate their rights). Her right to life protects her capacity to act by her own rational judgment, in pursuit of her own self-interest–and such is the very purpose of rights.

The advocates of “personhood” deny the pregnant woman’s right to life in asserting rights for the embryo and fetus., for example, frames the issue in terms of competing rights:

Politically speaking, abortion is an issue that involves competing rights. On the one hand, you have the mother’s right not to be pregnant. On the other hand, you have the baby’s right not to be killed. The question that must be answered is this. Which right is more fundamental? Which right has a greater claim? Abortion advocates argue that outlawing abortion would, in essence, elevate the rights of the unborn over and above those of the mother. “How can you make a fetus more important than a grown woman?”, they might ask. In reality, outlawing abortion wouldn’t be giving unborn children more rights, it would simply gain for them the one most fundamental right that no one can live without, the right to life.[153]

This analysis is utterly wrong. Rights are trumps: they identify the scope and limits of each person’s freedom of action in society. To assert conflicts between rights is to confess that one’s theory of rights contradicts itself, and a self-contradictory theory of rights cannot be true.

Yet that analysis by is correct, in one sense. By the very nature of pregnancy, any rights ascribed to the embryo or fetus would conflict with the rights of the mother to her own body. Since pregnant women are clearly persons with full rights, that fact only confirms that embryos and fetuses are not persons with rights. Moreover, acknowledges (to some extent) that pregnant women would be obliged to sacrifice themselves to provide life support to the embryo and fetus: “If a baby is not to be aborted, then the pregnant mother must remain pregnant. This will also require of her sickness, fatigue, reduced mobility, an enlarged body, and a new wardrobe. Fortunately, it is not a permanent condition.”[154] Yet that demand for forced sacrifice contradicts the very nature and purpose of rights. How so?

Rights enable people to flourish by ensuring that they interact by peaceful, voluntary, and mutually beneficial trade–rather than violence, theft, and fraud. In particular, the right to life guarantees one’s own freedom of action in pursuit of one’s life: it’s not a duty imposed on others to preserve one’s life. The responsibility of care for another can only be acquired by the voluntary consent of the care-giver, such as when a man takes a friend out to sea on his boat for a week or when parents take an infant home from the hospital rather than abandoning it under a “Safe Haven Law.”[155] However, to grant rights to the embryo and fetus would be to impose such an unjust duty on pregnant women. Regardless of her own plans for her life, every pregnant woman would be obliged to provide life-support to the embryo and fetus, perhaps at great personal cost to herself and her family. That’s not freedom; it’s slavery.

Significantly, the inalienable right of the pregnant woman to her own life–and hence, her own body–confirms that even a viable fetus cannot be properly regarded as a person with rights. Undoubtedly, for a pregnant woman to seek to abort a healthy, viable fetus without some overriding concern (such as her own health) would be a bizarre and possibly vicious act, e.g., if done to spite the father or due to evasion of the pregnancy for months. Yet the fact remains that even when a woman is deeply committed to her pregnancy, serious conflicts can arise between her welfare and that of the fetus, such as when receiving emergency medical treatment during childbirth or after a car accident. Due to such cases, the law must reflect the fact that the woman has an absolute right to make her own choices about her body. The potential for such conflicts only ends once the fetus is born, when the woman and baby become–and can be treated as–fully separate individuals.

Of course, when a woman wants to bear a child, she will value her fetus tremendously. She will do all she can to ensure the birth of a healthy baby, protecting it from myriad harms. Moreover, she has every right to expect that the police and courts will protect her and her fetus from criminal assault. Indeed, the law should severely punish criminals who intentionally harm a woman and her fetus. However, the only rational basis for such laws is the woman’s rights to her own body–coupled with a recognition of the value she places on her fetus–not any false rights attributed to the fetus. Just as the fetus depends on the woman’s body for its survival, so it depends on the woman’s rights for its legal protections.

In sum, the fundamental biological differences between a zygote, embryo, or fetus versus an infant show that a woman has every right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy–for any reason. The pregnant woman is a human person with the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. So is an infant. However, neither a zygote, nor an embryo, nor a fetus is a person. It has no right to life-support from the pregnant woman. For the state to force a woman to provide such life-support under penalty of law would be a gross violation of her rights. Yet that’s precisely what “personhood” measures would demand–based on the irrational fantasy that a zygote has the same moral and legal standing as an infant.

Read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.


This post is drawn from Ari Armstrong’s and my new policy paper: The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception. I’m currently posting the full paper as a series of blog posts. You can read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.

The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception

By Ari Armstrong and Diana Hsieh, Ph.D
A policy paper written for the Coalition for Secular Government (
Published on August 31, 2010

Individual Rights and Abortion

The Core Arguments for “Personhood” Laws

The activist groups seeking to make “personhood” measures the law of the land offer two distinct arguments for granting full legal rights to embryos and fetuses, one religious and one secular. Often first and foremost, they claim that the embryo or fetus is an innocent life recognized and valued as such by God. Hence, abortion is a grave violation of God’s prohibition on murder.[125] However, as we argue in a later section, America was founded as a free country, not a theocracy. To force people to obey God’s alleged laws is a clear violation of their liberty rights, as well as a violation of the separation of church and state. However, many of these groups offer a secular justification for “personhood” too. They claim that every human has an inalienable right to life, that the humanity of the embryo and fetus is self-evident, and that abortion grossly violates their rights.[126]

What do “personhood” advocates say to justify this claim of self-evident humanity? The argument is stated briefly on the website of Personhood USA as follows:

The science of fetology in 1973 [at the time of Roe v. Wade] was not able to prove, as it can now, that a fully human and unique individual exists at the moment of fertilization and continues to grow through various stages of development in a continuum (barring tragedy) until natural death from old age. …If you look up the word “person” in your average dictionary…you’ll find something like this: Person n. A human being. A person, simply put, is a human being. This fact should be enough. The intrinsic humanity of unborn children, by definition, makes them persons and should, therefore, guarantee their protection under the law.

As a result, Personhood USA claims, all “unborn children” should be recognized as possessing “certain rights such as the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”[127]

More substantive defenses of the view that embryos and fetuses are fully human persons with the right to life are found in sources cited by “personhood” groups, such as the website and the book Prolife Answers to Prochoice Arguments by Randy Alcorn.[128] Here, we will outline that argument in its secular form, ignoring appeals to “God-given” rights and Christian scripture.

The argument for the self-evident humanity of the embryo and fetus begins with the scientific claim that the life of a human being begins at conception. Apart from any religious beliefs, it says, the science of medicine overwhelmingly affirms that a new human life is created with the fertilization of the egg by a sperm.[129] That new life is thoroughly human, highly complex, biologically active, and distinct from the pregnant woman. It is neither a blob of tissue, nor just a part of the pregnant woman’s own body as are her organs.[130] As says:

At the moment of fertilization, a new and unique human being comes into existence with its own distinct genetic code. Twenty-three chromosomes from the mother and twenty-three chromosomes from the father combine to result in a brand-new and totally unique genetic combination. Whereas the heart, lungs, and hair of a woman all share the same genetic code, her unborn child, from the moment of fertilization, has a separate genetic code that is all its own. There is enough information in this tiny zygote to control human growth and development for the rest of its life.[131]

In essence, advocates of “personhood” claim that the fertilization of the egg by the sperm creates a new, distinct, and thoroughly human life, i.e. a human being. The resulting zygote, embryo, and then fetus is not merely a potential human being: it is an actual human being in an early stage of development.[132]

Next, the argument asserts that to be a person–in the sense of possessing the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness–requires only that something be a human being. says:

There are essentially two issues which must be resolved concerning unborn embryos and fetuses. The first is, “Are they human beings?” The second is, “Should they be recognized as persons under the law?” We’ve already established that there is no debate on the first question. …So should humans be recognized as persons under the law? Yes, because humans are persons. Something is a person if it has a personal nature. In other words, something is a person if, by nature, it has the capacity to develop the ability to think rationally, express emotion, make decisions, etc. This capacity is something that a person has as soon as he begins to exist, since it is part of his nature (in other words, if he exists, he has it). Since humans have a personal nature, humans are persons. As for the fetus, since it is a human (and so, something with a personal nature), it is a person. Just as a cat qualifies as a feline simply by being a cat, a fetus qualifies as a person simply by being a human. So, it is impossible for a fetus to not be a person.[133]

In other words, the capacity to exist as a person is simply part of human nature. That intrinsic personhood does not depend on any further qualities that might be developed later, such as “size, skill, or degree of intelligence.”[134] In his book Prolife Answers to Prochoice Arguments, Randy Alcorn writes:

Age, size, IQ, or stage of development are simply differences in degree, not in kind. Our kind is our humanity. We are people, human beings. We possess certain skills to differing degrees at different stages of development. When we reach maturation there are many different degrees of skills and levels of IQ. But none of these make some people better or more human than others. None make some qualified to live, and others unqualified.[135]

On this view, a person is nothing more or less than a human being: all persons are humans and all humans are persons. Hence, states, “a person…is nothing more or less than a living human. ….The differences that exist between a human being before birth and a human being after birth are differences that don’t matter.”[136]

Finally, the argument claims, the fact that every human life from conception to natural death is a person has profound political and legal implications. “The intrinsic humanity of unborn children qualifies them as persons and should, therefore, guarantee their protection under the law.”[137] More specifically, the embryo and fetus have “the one most fundamental right that no one can live without, the right to life”–just like a born infant.[138] While women have rights to their own bodies, as well as to the lifestyles of their choosing, those rights are not “absolute and unconditional”: they must be limited in pregnancy due to the more fundamental right to life of the embryo or fetus.[139]

Ultimately then, according to “personhood” advocates, a pregnant woman cannot have the right to choose to get an abortion any more than she can properly choose to commit assault, murder, or theft.[140] Since abortion destroys the life of another person, it must be outlawed as a willfully criminal act.[141] To support abortion rights is to sanction the ongoing genocide against the unborn, with about 50 million dead so far.[142]

Now, with that clear picture of the secular argument for “personhood” firmly in mind, we can take a fresh look at the question of rights in pregnancy.

Read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.


This post is drawn from Ari Armstrong’s and my new policy paper: The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception. I’m currently posting the full paper as a series of blog posts. You can read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.

The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception

By Ari Armstrong and Diana Hsieh, Ph.D
A policy paper written for the Coalition for Secular Government (
Published on August 31, 2010

Individual Rights and Abortion

Today’s “Pro-Choice” Rhetoric

Today’s most prominent defenders of abortion rights follow in the footsteps of Roe v. Wade. By and large, they offer superficial and pragmatic defenses of abortion rights based on vague appeals to privacy, coupled with accounts of the harms inflicted by abortion bans.

The websites of the two most prominent pro-choice advocacy groups in America–Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America–offer no substantive defense of the right to abortion. They simply assert a broadly pro-choice position, without grappling with the difficult moral and legal questions raised by abortion. For example, the website of Planned Parenthood’s “Action Center” offers the following as their sole defense of “abortion access”:

Our primary goal is prevention–reducing the number of unintended pregnancies, especially the alarmingly high number of teenage pregnancies, in the United States. At the same time, to protect their health and the health of their families, women facing an unintended pregnancy must have access to safe, legal abortion services without interference from the government. Decisions about childbearing should be made by a woman in consultation with her family and doctor–not by politicians.[118]

Only a few of the organization’s posted “Research Papers” concern abortion, and those that do focus solely on the history of abortion rights, the safety of abortion, and abortion statistics.[119] Similarly, NARAL’s only substantive document pertaining to abortion rights posted to its website is an eleven-page “fact sheet” on “The Safety of Legal Abortion and the Hazards of Illegal Abortion.”[120]

The failure of these two most prominent pro-choice groups to address the philosophic questions surrounding abortion does not bode well for abortion rights in America, particularly in light of the rise of a fervent “personhood” movement. That’s because neither vague appeals to the privacy rights of pregnant women nor the harms wrought by abortion bans are of any importance if conception creates a person with a right to life. Why not?

First, if embryos and fetuses are persons, then a pregnant woman cannot claim that her decision to terminate her pregnancy should be respected as “private.” She would be obliged to respect the rights of the innocent person within her–and if she failed to do so, the state could and should intervene. To seek an abortion would not be a “private medical decision” but rather akin to hiring a hit man.

Second, if embryos and fetuses are persons, then the pregnant woman would be obliged to endure any financial burdens, health problems, or emotional strain caused by the pregnancy. The right to life of the embryo or fetus would override every such concern, except perhaps the woman’s own life. To abort an embryo or fetus due to inconvenience or hardship in pregnancy would be just as horrifying as suffocating one’s elderly parents due to difficulties in providing them care.

Third, if embryos and fetuses are persons, then women who suffer terrible complications from illegal abortions have only themselves to blame. To demand legal abortion on that basis would be as bizarre as legalizing assault or rape to prevent perpetrators of those crimes from injuring themselves. The law should protect the victim of the crime (i.e., the embryo or fetus) not the perpetrator (i.e., the pregnant woman).

In sum, the standard pro-choice arguments for abortion rights, drawn from Roe v. Wade, cannot withstand the basic claim of “personhood” advocates that fertilization creates a new human person with its own right to life. As Christopher Kurka, the sponsor of the “personhood” initiative in Alaska said, “If…we recognize the unborn as persons, then a woman’s right to choose or a right to privacy doesn’t matter [just like] she doesn’t have a right to kill her child after it’s born.”[121]

The opinion of the Court in Roe v. Wade acknowledges its own weakness against “personhood” claims openly: “If this suggestion of personhood is established, the [pro-choice] case, of course, collapses, for the fetus’ right to life would then be guaranteed specifically by the [Fourteenth] Amendment.” The advocates of “personhood” have made much of that concession, citing it frequently as the source of their legal strategy.[122] In light of that, the dependence of pro-choice groups on the precedents set by and arguments of Roe v. Wade must be regarded as dangerous. If overturned–or even challenged on its basic assumptions–abortion rights would be left without any defense. That is the result the “personhood” movement strives to accomplish.

Unfortunately, the standard-bearers of the pro-choice movement have not risen to the challenge posed by the “personhood” movement–not even when faced with Colorado’s Amendment 48 in 2008 and Amendment 62 in 2010. Instead, they have declined to state any definite positions on the extent of abortion rights or offer any substantive arguments for such rights.

For example, “Protect Families, Protect Choices,” the major pro-choice coalition against “personhood” measures in Colorado, effectively campaigned against Amendment 48 in 2008 on the basis of its practical consequences. Yet its often-repeated campaign slogans–”It Simply Goes Too Far” in 2008 and “It Still Goes Too Far” in 2010–cede moral ground to the opponents of abortion. They suggest a compromise, as if some restrictions on abortion might be proper, albeit not the full ban demanded by “personhood” advocates. Perhaps the embryo or fetus should be granted legal rights in the third trimester. Perhaps abortions should be permitted only in cases of rape, incest, deformity, or risk to the life of the woman. Yet surely coalition members like NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado and Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains would oppose any such restrictions on abortion.[123]

Even when directly challenged to state a position on when rights begin in human life, spokespersons for “Protect Families, Protect Choices” skirted the issue. For example, in an online chat for the Rocky Mountain News, Crystal Clinkenbeard said:

It is incredibly hard to describe a blanket time when constitutional rights should apply. Reasonable people disagree passionately about when life begins. Amendment 48 does nothing to [resolve] that difficult social issue. Instead, it is more divisive. That kind of decision needs to be left to individuals to follow their own moral, philosophical beliefs.[124]

That answer is not mere evasion. It’s wrong in a deeper way, in that it suggests that abortion rights can be founded on skepticism and relativism.

The most basic function of any government is to protect rights, and that requires constitutional provisions and laws specifying the nature and extent of rights. For the government to adopt a seemingly neutral stance on claims of rights, such that people would have to act based on their own opinions about who has what rights, would be anarchy. In theory, the pro-choice woman would be entitled to terminate her pregnancy, in accordance with her beliefs–just as the anti-abortion activist would be entitled to stop her by force, in accordance with his beliefs. The result would be violent conflict. In practice, however, such neutrality about rights usually amounts to an implicit denial of rights, in that the government would refrain from recognizing or protecting them. Yet the government might attempt to accommodate opposing views–and hence adopt a compromise position–exactly as it did in Roe v. Wade. Then, instead of the enjoying the benefit of sound jurisprudence, a society must endure persistent simmering political conflict.

“Pro-choice” advocates may seem to achieve their goals by this approach, because embryos and fetuses are not granted rights. Yet far from securing abortion rights, these skeptical arguments undermine their very foundation. Skepticism is an illusory basis for rights, easily defeated by even barely plausible arguments for “personhood.” Moreover, such skepticism sets a dangerous precedent. Just imagine, for example, the violence that would be unleashed against innocent people if a government allowed people to “follow their own moral, philosophical beliefs” about the rights of women, gays, immigrants, and the elderly on the grounds that their rights constitute a “difficult social issue.”

The government must take a stand on claims of rights. If embryos and fetuses are persons with rights, the government must actively protect them from harm. Conversely, if no such rights exist, then the government must actively protect women seeking abortions and the doctors who perform them from obstruction and violence by anti-abortion activists. People are only entitled to “follow their own moral, philosophical beliefs” in choosing whether to terminate a pregnancy or bring it to term if embryos and fetuses are not persons with a right to life. Yet that is the very question that these prominent pro-choice activists do not discuss, even when directly challenged by the “personhood” movement.

Ultimately, “personhood” measures are not wrong because they are too extreme, too divisive, or too intrusive–as typical pro-choice activists are wont to claim. Instead, they’re wrong because embryos and fetuses are not human persons with the right to life. To understand why that’s so, we must examine the core arguments for the “personhood” of embryos and fetuses.

Read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.

Sep 232010

I’m pleased to announce that Ari Armstrong’s and my policy paper “The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life” is now available in “mobi” e-book format, in addition to PDF and HTML. You can download the mobi file, then copy it to your Kindle or other e-reader. On the iPad, the easiest version to read might be the PDF.

I offer my sincerest thanks to Roberto Sarrionandia for making this file conversion possible. I was pretty hopelessly lost until he offered his assistance.


This post is drawn from Ari Armstrong’s and my new policy paper: The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception. I’m currently posting the full paper as a series of blog posts. You can read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.

The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception

By Ari Armstrong and Diana Hsieh, Ph.D
A policy paper written for the Coalition for Secular Government (
Published on August 31, 2010

Individual Rights and Abortion

As seen in detail in the prior section, if the agenda of the “personhood” movement were adopted and enforced by law, women and men would suffer serious harms, many permanent and some even life-threatening. These dire effects of “personhood” laws are no accident. They are the predictable result of violating the rights of true persons by fabricating rights for embryos and fetuses. Contrary to the assertions of “personhood” advocates, rights begin at birth. Only then does the newly born infant become a distinct human person with a right to life.

These truths about the origin of rights have been obscured by the facile semantic arguments in favor of “personhood,” as well as by the inadequate and misguided arguments of today’s typical defenders of abortion rights. In fact, rights are neither grants from God, nor favors from the Supreme Court. In particular, abortion rights, properly understood, are not based on a woman’s supposed “right to privacy,” nor subject to limitation by “state interests,” as ruled in Roe v. Wade. And embryos and fetuses cannot be granted rights based on their potential to develop into human persons. The proper view of rights during pregnancy is based on fundamental facts about human nature. Those facts dictate that only pregnant women–not embryos or fetuses–have rights.

The Compromise of Roe V. Wade

In Roe v. Wade, the court upheld abortion rights based on a “right to privacy” but limited those rights by “state interests.” Of laws that forbid abortion except to save the life of the woman, the court held:

[Such laws] violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which protects against state action the right to privacy, including a woman’s qualified right to terminate her pregnancy. Though the State cannot override that right, it has legitimate interests in protecting both the pregnant woman’s health and the potentiality of human life, each of which interests grows and reaches a “compelling” point at various stages of the woman’s approach to term.[117]

In practice, the court ruled that states must leave abortion to “the medical judgment of the pregnant woman’s attending physician” during the first trimester. Thereafter, state interests in the health of the mother and the fetus could override privacy rights. So in the second and third trimesters, states could “regulate the abortion procedure in ways that are reasonably related to maternal health.” Also, when the fetus becomes viable outside the womb, states could “regulate, and even proscribe, abortion except where necessary, in appropriate medical judgment, for the preservation of the life or health of the mother”–due to their “interest in the potentiality of human life.”

The court’s decision was a compromise between “pro-choice” and “pro-life” positions. It permitted abortion, but only under certain conditions and subject to much state regulation. The decision denied the claim that “the fetus is a ‘person’ within the language and meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment.” Yet at the same time, it rejected the principle that “the woman’s right is absolute” such that “she is entitled to terminate her pregnancy at whatever time, in whatever way, and for whatever reason she alone chooses.” It focused on the well-being of the mother, yet sought to protect the viable fetus too. And while the court refused to say that “a new human life is present from the moment of conception,” that was only because it declined to “resolve the difficult question of when life begins.”

The court’s rationale for these compromises was murky, to say the least. The majority opinion asserted an undefined “right to privacy” based on “the Fourteenth Amendment’s concept of personal liberty and restrictions upon state action.” The opinion declared that right “broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy,” yet did not explain why or how. Moreover, the strength of that right was held to depend on the stage of the pregnancy, for as the fetus develops, “the woman’s privacy is no longer sole,” such that “any right of privacy she possesses must be measured accordingly.” So as the woman’s privacy rights diminish, the state could intervene to promote its significant interests, such as “that of health of the mother or that of potential human life.”

Compared to its appeal to the “penumbras” of the Bill of Rights for a right to privacy, the court was far more clear in its concern for the damage inflicted on women and families by abortion bans:

The detriment that the State would impose upon the pregnant woman by denying this choice altogether is apparent. Specific and direct harm medically diagnosable even in early pregnancy may be involved. Maternity, or additional offspring, may force upon the woman a distressful life and future. Psychological harm may be imminent. Mental and physical health may be taxed by child care. There is also the distress, for all concerned, associated with the unwanted child, and there is the problem of bringing a child into a family already unable, psychologically and otherwise, to care for it. In other cases, as in this one, the additional difficulties and continuing stigma of unwed motherhood may be involved. All these are factors the woman and her responsible physician necessarily will consider in consultation.

Given the weak ideological defense of abortion rights offered by the court, these policy concerns were likely of paramount concern in the decision. Yet as we shall see, such pragmatic objections to abortion bans cannot justify abortion rights, particularly not in the face of the claim that the embryo or fetus is a person with the same right to life as a born infant.

Read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.


This post is drawn from Ari Armstrong’s and my new policy paper: The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception. I’m currently posting the full paper as a series of blog posts. You can read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.

The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception

By Ari Armstrong and Diana Hsieh, Ph.D
A policy paper written for the Coalition for Secular Government (
Published on August 31, 2010

The Destructive Effects of ‘Personhood’

Bans of Embryonic Stem-Cell Research

“Personhood” laws would ban all medical research that might harm embryos–even though such research may help save and improve the lives of countless born people. The National Institutes of Health summarizes some of the potential benefits of embryonic stem-cell research:

[S]tudying stem cells will help us to understand how they transform into the dazzling array of specialized cells that make us what we are. Some of the most serious medical conditions, such as cancer and birth defects, are due to problems that occur somewhere in this process. A better understanding of normal cell development will allow us to understand and perhaps correct the errors that cause these medical conditions.

Another potential application of stem cells is making cells and tissues for medical therapies. …Pluripotent stem cells [from human embryos] offer the possibility of a renewable source of replacement cells and tissues to treat a myriad of diseases, conditions, and disabilities including Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, spinal cord injury, burns, heart disease, diabetes, and arthritis.[113]

Advances in mid-2010, while still in clinical trials, point to the potential benefits of embryonic stem-cell research–and the hostility such research generates from religious opponents of abortion. Abroad, London’s Telegraph reports: “Researchers used more than a 100 spare embryos left over from treatment at fertility clinics to establish several embryonic stem cell ‘lines.’ One of those lines…was transformed into blood stem cells before they were converted into red cells containing haemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying pigment.” Such research may lead to safe, abundant blood supplies. A Catholic critic who once ran for office with the ProLife Alliance party condemned the research as “proposed destructive use of embryos.”[114]

In the U.S., CNN reports:

The first human clinical trial of a therapy involving embryonic stems cells has been approved [by the FDA] to proceed… The purpose of this first phase of research in humans is to test the safety of a therapy in patients with spinal cord injury. Candidates for the trial are those with the most severe injuries.[115]

In response to the development, the National Catholic Register pointed out that any destruction of an embryo defies official Catholic policy: “The killing of innocent human creatures, even if carried out to help others, constitutes an absolutely unacceptable act.” While the article also discusses potential scientific limitations to the research, it presents a religious position that would oppose embryonic stem-cell research regardless of its effectiveness.[116]

In the name of “respecting life,” “personhood” advocates would impose a death sentence on the real people whose lives might be saved through embryonic stem cell research.

Amendment 62 Is Anti-Life

Considering the logical implications of Colorado’s Amendment 62 and comparable “personhood” laws, one can only rationally conclude that these proposals are profoundly anti-life, not “pro-life” as its advocates pretend.

To summarize the findings of this section, if fully enforced, Amendment 62 would threaten severe legal penalties, possibly including the death penalty, for intentionally harming a zygote, embryo, or fetus.

It would outlaw all elective abortions, forcing pregnant women to give birth against their judgment of what’s best for their lives, and it would encourage dangerous illegal abortions.

It would outlaw medical intervention that might harm an embryo or fetus except in cases of severe risk to the woman’s life, and even then the measure might strongly discourage doctors from intervening. In cases of risks to a woman’s health only, or in cases of uncertain risk to life, Amendment 62 would threaten a doctor with criminal prosecution for taking action to help a pregnant woman.

Amendment 62 would ban abortion even in cases of rape, incest, and terminal fetal deformity.

It would ban any form of birth control, including the pill and IUD, that might prevent a zygote from implanting in the uterus, thereby forcing couples to resort to less effective forms of birth control and causing more unplanned pregnancies.

It would effectively ban fertility treatments, thereby preventing hundreds of Colorado families from having a child each year.

And it would ban embryonic stem cell research that could save or improve countless lives of actual, born people.

Calling Amendment 62 a “pro-life” measure, when it would actively damage, prevent, or destroy the lives of so many actual people, is an appalling inversion of the truth. Amendment 62 is an anti-life measure that should be morally condemned as such.

Read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.


This post is drawn from Ari Armstrong’s and my new policy paper: The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception. I’m currently posting the full paper as a series of blog posts. You can read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.

The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception

By Ari Armstrong and Diana Hsieh, Ph.D
A policy paper written for the Coalition for Secular Government (
Published on August 31, 2010

The Destructive Effects of ‘Personhood’

Bans of Common Fertility Treatments

“Personhood” laws would require dramatic changes to the treatment of embryos in laboratory settings, including fertility clinics and research facilities. Such changes further illustrate the harm Amendment 62 and like measures would inflict on real people as well as the absurdities that arise from granting legal rights to newly fertilized zygotes.

The Division of Reproductive Health of the Centers for Disease Control reports that nationally, “about 12% of women of childbearing age in the United States have used an infertility service.” Fertility treatments account for more than one percent of all U.S. births. In 2007, the 430 fertility clinics evaluated helped women deliver 57,569 infants. Exclusively using in vitro fertilization, the seven clinics in Colorado helped 998 women give birth, led by the Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine in Englewood with 613 of those births.[110]

Those thousand Colorado mothers would not be mothers, and their children would not exist today, but for fertility treatments. “Personhood” advocates, who claim to “respect life,” would outlaw such births.

Fertility treatments commonly involve the destruction of embryos. The same CDC report explains that, after egg development, the treatment “cycle then progresses to egg retrieval, a surgical procedure in which eggs are collected from a woman’s ovaries.

Once retrieved, eggs are combined with sperm in the laboratory. If fertilization is successful, one or more of the resulting embryos are selected for transfer, most often into a woman’s uterus…” The rest of the embryos are frozen or destroyed. Frozen embryos may be saved for later implantation or donation; however, “some embryos do not survive the thawing process.”[111]

The Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine explains the process of in vitro fertilization:

In cases of normal sperm function, the eggs and several thousand sperm are placed together in a dish which contains a nutrient liquid. These dishes are kept in an incubator overnight and are examined under the microscope on the morning after the egg retrieval to determine which eggs have fertilized normally. …

Some couples are fortunate enough to collect a large number of embryos from one egg collection. Any remaining viable embryos that are not transferred into the woman’s uterus during the month of treatment may be frozen (“cryopreserved”) in small tubes and kept in storage in the embryo laboratory for future use. Cryopreservation allows the patient to limit the number of embryos transferred “fresh” without discarding the unused embryos that could lead to a future pregnancy. The embryos may be kept in storage for several years. By transferring frozen-thawed embryos into the uterus, some patients have achieved 2-3 pregnancies in different years from just one egg collection.[112]

Notice that freezing embryos is considered to be a desirable part of fertility treatment. If a clinic attempted to fertilize only an egg or two at a time, that would dramatically reduce the effectiveness of the treatment and dramatically increase its cost. Because many eggs don’t fertilize in any given treatment cycle, some women restricted to treatment involving single-egg fertilization would risk waiting too long to get pregnant at all, regardless of the cost. Alternately, a woman could risk becoming impregnated with several embryos, which could create severe health problems or produce more children than a couple is prepared to raise.

In the context of a “personhood” law, the basic problem with in vitro fertilization is that often not all of the embryos are transferred to the woman’s uterus. Embryos in the lab could not be allowed to perish, nor languish in cold storage, as they would be considered persons with rights, and frozen embryos remain viable only for a few years. To eliminate such practices would render in vitro fertilization not worth doing for most infertile couples. So the practical result of Amendment 62 likely would be to shut down Colorado’s seven reproductive clinics and put an end to those births.

Finally, consider how Amendment 62 would change the legal status of all the frozen embryos now in existence: they would suddenly become “persons” under the law, with all the rights of born infants. Presumably, women would be forced to implant (or donate for implantation) all their existing embryos–or face criminal charges. Moreover, if the biological parents of a frozen embryo die, presumably the embryo has full rights of inheritance, thereby reducing the share of any born children, though how the frozen embryo will grow up to collect remains a problem.

This fantastical scenario highlights the absurdity of treating an embryo as a person in the law. However, the farce of granting legal rights to frozen embryos ought not obscure the much more important point: fertility treatments bestow the gift of a child to many hundreds of Colorado women and men each year, a gift that Amendment 62 would smother.

Read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.


This post is drawn from Ari Armstrong’s and my new policy paper: The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception. I’m currently posting the full paper as a series of blog posts. You can read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.

The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception

By Ari Armstrong and Diana Hsieh, Ph.D
A policy paper written for the Coalition for Secular Government (
Published on August 31, 2010

The Destructive Effects of ‘Personhood’

Bans of Common Birth Control Methods

While the most obvious and severe effect of Amendment 62 and comparable measures would be a total ban on abortion, they would also profoundly affect the day-to-day sex lives of couples by restricting birth control. If a newly fertilized zygote is a person with full legal rights, then any action that prevents a zygote from implanting in the uterus must be considered murder. Thus, if fully implemented, “personhood” measures would ban any form of birth control that could prevent implantation of a zygote, most notably, the birth control pill–the most popular type of birth control–as well as intrauterine devices (IUDs) and “morning after” drugs.

A ban on the birth control pill would affect most sexually-active couples. A report from the Centers for Disease Control shows widespread use of birth control, noting that, as of 2008, 99 percent “of all women who had ever had intercourse had ever used at least one contraceptive method,” and 82 percent “had ever used the oral contraceptive pill.” The report continues: “The leading current method of contraception in the United States in 2006-2008 was the oral contraceptive pill. It was currently being used by 10.7 million women aged 15-44 years.”[94]

The reason for the pill’s popularity is not difficult to fathom; it is not only easy to use but also highly reliable. With “perfect use,” the pill is more effective than sterilization and condom use, the second and third most popular forms of birth control; only 0.3 percent of women on the pill experience an unwanted pregnancy within the first year of use, compared to 0.5 percent for sterilization and 2.0 percent for condoms.[95] So women forced to switch from the birth control pill to condom use due to Amendment 62 would, given perfect use, experience around seven times the number of unintended pregnancies. Although effective, sterilization is surgically invasive and permanent, and it exposes women to an increased risk of ectopic pregnancy and other problems.[96] Amendment 62 would require many thousands of women to scramble to find a new method of birth control, yet none is likely to be as convenient and effective as the pill.

Personhood Colorado endorses laws permitting only birth control “that prevents conception,” understood as “the union of a sperm and an egg.” Forms of birth control that instead result in the destruction of a zygote should be called “abortifacients,” not contraception, the organization holds. “Barrier methods of contraception that prevent the union of the sperm and the egg will not be outlawed,” the group states, and presumably the same logic holds for sterilization, but other forms of birth control would be banned.[97]

How would birth control pills, IUDs, and “morning after” drugs violate “personhood” laws?

While most often the pill acts to prevent fertilization, sometimes it can prevent a zygote from implanting in the uterus. The manufacturers of the popular birth control pills Ortho Tri-Cyclen(R) and Trinessa(R) state in their prescription information:

Combination oral contraceptives act by suppression of gonadotropins [hormones]. Although the primary mechanism of this action is inhibition of ovulation, other alterations include changes in the cervical mucus (which increase the difficulty of sperm entry into the uterus) and the endometrium [the lining of the uterus] (which reduce the likelihood of implantation).[98]

Due to this potential for harm to zygotes, the birth control pill used by so many couples would have to be outlawed under “personhood” laws.

The IUD Mirena(R) also causes “alteration of the endometrium” and may “thin the lining of your uterus,” which may inhibit implantation; moreover, the device may threaten pregnancies that do occur. The device is relatively effective at preventing unwanted pregnancy: “The reported 12-month pregnancy rates were less than or equal to 0.2 per 100 women (0.2%) and the cumulative 5-year pregnancy rate was approximately 0.7 per 100 women (0.7%).” (The device is intended for use for up to five years.) However, if the device fails the consequences can be serious. “Up to half of pregnancies that occur with Mirena in place are ectopic.” Moreover: “Severe infection, miscarriage, premature delivery, and even death can occur with pregnancies that continue with an intrauterine device (IUD). Because of this, your health care provider may try to remove Mirena, even though removing it may cause a miscarriage.”[99]

These facts have two main implications vis-a-vis “personhood” laws. First, because the IUD may prevent a zygote from implanting and may threaten a pregnancy if it does occur, the device should be banned, according to the logic of the measure. (A device that threatened the lives of up to half of all born infants, as the IUD does for zygotes by increasing the risk of ectopic pregnancy, would be banned as a public health menace.) Second, many women already use the IUD, and some might continue to use it (legally or illegally) after passage of a “personhood” law. In such cases, if pregnancy occurred a woman’s doctor would face the threat of criminal prosecution for unduly threatening the life of the embryo. Because a doctor might damage an embryo either by removing the IUD or leaving it in place, some doctors might simply choose not to treat patients with IUDs and save themselves the associated legal risks.

Emergency contraception (or “morning after” drugs) also may prevent implantation of the zygote. The FDA discusses a common brand:

Plan B works like other birth control pills to prevent pregnancy. Plan B acts primarily by stopping the release of an egg from the ovary (ovulation). It may prevent the union of sperm and egg (fertilization). If fertilization does occur, Plan B may prevent a fertilized egg from attaching to the womb (implantation).[100]

The FDA approved the new prescription emergency contraception drug “ella” on August 13, 2010. A representative of the drug’s manufacturer said, “We are clearly in the realm of contraception. We’re not in the realm of pregnancy termination.”[101] However, the FDA states, “It is possible that ella may also work by preventing attachment (implantation) to the uterus.”[102] Hence, Gene Rudd, senior vice president of the Christian Medical and Dental Associations, told American Medical News, “There will be plenty of doctors who won’t provide the drug because it probably does cause abortion.”[103]

Many religious opponents of abortion welcome the prospect that Amendment 62 and similar measures would ban the birth control pill, IUD, and “morning after” pill. They accept the logical implications of their belief that fertilization creates a human person with full rights, as seen in the following articles. In 2008 the Wall Street Journal reported:

The Bush Administration has ignited a furor with a proposed definition of pregnancy that has the effect of classifying some of the most widely used methods of contraception as abortion.

A draft regulation, still being revised and debated, treats most birth-control pills and intrauterine devices as abortion because they can work by preventing fertilized eggs from implanting in the uterus. The regulation considers that destroying “the life of a human being.” …

With its expansive definitions, the draft bolsters a key goal of the religious right: to give single-cell fertilized eggs full rights by defining them as legal people–or, as some activists put it, “the tiniest boys and girls.”[104], which advocates “ending abortion,” hosts an article by J. T. Flynn which begins, “Physicians across America–and around the world–are now confirming that the Pill, IUDs, Depo-Provera and Norplant cause early abortions.”[105]

Dr. Walter Larimore considered the “postfertilization effect” of the birth control pill, and he decided on religious grounds to stop prescribing it:

Finally, after many months of debate and prayer, I decided in 1998 to no longer prescribe the Pill. As a family physician, my career has been committed to family care from conception to death. Since the evidence indicated to me that the Pill could have a postfertilization effect, I felt I could no longer, in good conscience, prescribe it…[106]

To put the possible “postfertilization effect” of birth control methods in perspective, consider that natural or spontaneous abortion is a routine occurrence. Many zygotes fail to implant, and they are flushed out of a woman’s body. Due to the difficulty of detecting when a woman’s body rejects a zygote, estimates of prevalence range widely. One researcher summarizes, “In humans, it has been estimated that between 30% and 70% of conceptuses are lost before or at the time of implantation, without women being aware that they were pregnant.”[107] Even after a woman becomes pregnant with the implantation of the embryo, the risks of losing the embryo by natural causes still hover around 10 to 25 percent.[108] Moreover, as William Saletan observes for Slate, activities that may inhibit implantation include breast feeding, drinking coffee, and exercising.[109] Hence, nature is by far the greatest cause of death for zygotes and embryos. Yet notice that such natural deaths are not lamented, nor regarded as a public health crisis–not even by those who think of the embryos as persons. In essence, “personhood” measures would ban forms of birth control that mimic the body’s natural processes.

If a newly fertilized zygote is a person, then birth control that blocks implantation even sometimes must be outlawed, with its use and distribution criminally penalized. The same would apply to any medication that might harm a zygote, regardless of the costs in pain and suffering to women. “Personhood” laws would thus profoundly impact the reproductive lives of women even before implantation, the common marker of the beginning of pregnancy.

Read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.


This post is drawn from Ari Armstrong’s and my new policy paper: The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception. I’m currently posting the full paper as a series of blog posts. You can read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.

The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception

By Ari Armstrong and Diana Hsieh, Ph.D
A policy paper written for the Coalition for Secular Government (
Published on August 31, 2010

The Destructive Effects of ‘Personhood’

Abortions to Protect a Woman’s Health

Thankfully, modern medicine makes both pregnancy and abortion relatively safe. The Centers for Disease Control reports, “The risk of death from complications of pregnancy has decreased approximately 99% during the twentieth century, from approximately 850 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in 1900 to 7.5 in 1982. However, since 1982, no further decrease has occurred in maternal mortality in the United States.” The report notes that most women who die from pregnancy die during live birth.[77] By way of comparison, the Guttmacher Institute notes, “Fewer than 0.5% of women obtaining abortions experience a complication, and the risk of death associated with abortion is about one-tenth that associated with childbirth.”[78]

However, for some small fraction of pregnant women with health problems, getting an abortion is far safer for her than attempting to give birth. The advocates of “personhood” laws claim that they would allow doctors to intervene to save the life of the mother. However, these laws would force doctors to balance the health of the woman with the life of the embryo or fetus, resulting in permanent injury or death for some women who would otherwise choose the relative safety of an abortion.

Personhood Colorado denies that Amendment 62 would “threaten the death penalty on doctors who do legitimate invasive surgery that could unintentionally harm a child in the womb.” The organization continues:

In Colorado, the death penalty is only available for first degree murder with aggravating factors. First degree murder requires deliberation and intent. There are no legitimate medical procedures that are intended to kill the child in the womb, and in those extremely rare situations where a woman needs treatment that might unintentionally result in the death of the child, the doctor would not have acted with intent to kill or even harm the child, but with intent to cure the mother. Before Colorado passed [its] abortion law legalizing abortion in 1967 there were no prosecutions of doctors for legitimate medical treatment. There will be no threat whatsoever to doctors practicing legitimate medicine when the Colorado Personhood Amendment passes. This is a scare tactic. …

[Amendment 62] won’t ban surgeries for women who have tubal pregnancies, also known as ectopic pregnancies.

The crucial issue in criminal law is always intent. Law School 101 teaches you that the basic elements of any crime are a guilty mind (mens rea) and a guilty act (actus reus). A doctor who performs a procedure to cut out a damaged section of a fallopian tube where a human embryo is lodged is not intending to kill the human embryo, instead she is attempting to cure a physical ailment, and unintentionally causing the death of a human embryo.[79]

Personhood Colorado’s claims about the lack of prosecutions under previous anti-abortion laws are meaningless, as those laws were dramatically different from any “personhood” measure.

More importantly, Personhood Colorado ignores the fact that first degree murder is not the only relevant statute. Colorado statute 18-3-105 states, “Any person who causes the death of another person by conduct amounting to criminal negligence commits criminally negligent homicide which is a class 5 felony.” Statute 18-1-501(3) clarifies: “A person acts with criminal negligence when, through a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would exercise, he fails to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk that a result will occur or that a circumstance exists.” Felony negligence does not require deliberation or intent.

True, a jury might apply the “reasonable person” standard in order to rule that any medical intervention to protect the life or health of the mother constitutes an appropriate “standard of care.” Alternately, the legislature might pass statutes clarifying that such medical interventions are legal. However, law enforcers would also be constitutionally bound to grant embryos and fetuses full legal rights, and they would urge juries to consider the implications of the language of Amendment 62. Even if a criminally prosecuted woman or doctor won in court, just the financial costs and emotional distress of a trial could take a heavy toll.

Moreover, it is not clear that, according to the language of “personhood,” a doctor could intervene to save the health (rather than the life) of a woman by terminating a pregnancy. Colorado Right to Life recognizes exceptions only when “the mother’s life” is “in danger.” And even “under those circumstances, those responsible must make every legitimate effort to save the life of both mother and child.”[80] In a separate statement, Colorado Right to Life recognizes the legitimacy of terminating a pregnancy only “when the mother’s life is seriously threatened.”[81] Likewise, in a memorandum for the religiously motivated Thomas More Law Center, Robert Muise refers only to terminating a pregnancy to save a woman’s life.[82] In other words, a doctor may be legally required to save the life of the embryo or fetus even if the woman will suffer permanent physical injury as a result.

Ultimately, legislation and court cases would determine whether a doctor could terminate a pregnancy to save not only the life but also the health of a woman. However, even if the law were clear, the broader problem is that doctors can rarely predict with certainly when a patient’s life or long-term health is at risk. A doctor who terminated a pregnancy, either to save the health or life of a woman, might be second-guessed by a prosecutor. The advice and decisions of doctors would be distorted by fear of possible prosecution, rather than based solely on their best judgment of the woman’s condition and prospects. As an inevitable result, some women would receive sub-standard medical care, and perhaps suffer permanent injury or death.

Abortion bans have produced legal problems and medical horrors even in the seemingly clear-cut case of ectopic pregnancies. Ectopic pregnancies, “the leading cause of pregnancy-related death during the first trimester in the United States,” occur when a fertilized egg develops outside of the uterus. An ectopic pregnancy occurs in about two percent of all pregnancies, and in 1992 about half of all ectopic pregnancies (58,200 out of 108,800) resulted in hospitalization.[83] Following a total ban on abortion in Nicaragua, many doctors refused to perform even emergency abortions for ectopic pregnancy, and at least one woman with an ectopic pregnancy died because doctors refused to treat her, apparently out of fear of prosecution.[84]

The lives of American women with ectopic pregnancies likely would be at similar risk under an enforced “personhood” measure. The Ohio-based Association of Prolife Physicians claims that medical intervention may not be justified even in cases of ectopic pregnancies, because “there are several cases in the medical literature where abdominal ectopic pregnancies have survived,” and even in cases of “pregnancies in a fallopian tube…chemical or surgical removal of an ectopic pregnancy is not always necessary to save the mother’s life.”[85]

Other anti-abortion groups agree that medical intervention may not be warranted even in cases of ectopic pregnancies. The website emphasizes that the only relevant consideration is the life, not the health, of the pregnant woman: “making an exception for the life of the mother is by no means comparable to making an exception for the health of the mother.” However, the essay continues, “We can never say with certainty that if the pregnancy continues, the mother will die.” Regarding ectopic pregnancy, states that it might “pose a significant threat to a woman’s life during the first trimester.” But “there have been a number of documented cases where undiagnosed ectopic pregnancies have yielded successful live births,” even after a zygote “implanted in his mother’s fallopian tube.” The essay concludes on an ambiguous note:

[I]t is safe to say that ectopic pregnancy, even an untreated ectopic pregnancy, is not as life-threatening as most people are led to believe. At the same time, the risk that an ectopic pregnancy poses to the mother’s life is real and sometimes fatal, while the baby’s chance of survival is extremely slim. There are no easy answers and no “one-size-fits-all” solution. If you’re facing an ectopic pregnancy, make sure you have a pro-life doctor to walk this road with you–one that prescribes abortion as a means of last resort, not as a means of first resort.[86]

Under Amendment 62 and similar measures, how would prosecutors treat doctors who prescribe medical intervention as a “first resort” in cases of ectopic pregnancy to better protect the woman’s life and health? The question is impossible to answer in advance–and that uncertainty could impel doctors to refuse to treat women suffering from ectopic pregnancy.

Alternatively, Priests for Life maintains that some kinds of medical interventions, but not others, are justified in cases of ectopic pregnancies. The organization features an exchange with a nurse, who states, “I am an oncology nurse and was asked to give methotrexate for an ectopic pregnancy…I believe the pregnancy was tubal. Needless to say I refused because I was unsure of the morality of it.” Priests for Life replies:

The relevant moral question is whether the method or action is in fact a killing of the child. If so, that is a direct abortion, which is never permissible for any reason. …Sometimes ectopic pregnancies are handled this way, killing the child but leaving the tube intact. Such an action is morally wrong.

However, if what is done is that the damaged portion of the tube is removed because of the threat it poses to the mother, that is not a direct abortion, even if the child dies. What is done is the same thing that would be done if the tube were damaged from some other cause. The mother is not saved by the death of the child but by the removal of the tube. Because the death of the child in this case is a side effect which is not intended, and because the saving of the mother’s life is not brought about by the death of the child, such a removal of the damaged portion of the tube is morally permissible.[87]

“Personhood” laws could require doctors to conduct such bizarre theological debates before providing medical care in an emergency. Doctors might be forced to use less effective or more dangerous methods of treatment. Even doctors who attempted to comply with the law could be subject to criminal investigation and prosecution if they used a method deemed inappropriate by a police officer or prosecutor. Once again, the result could be that doctors refuse to treat women with ectopic pregnancy.

Ectopic pregnancy is not the only serious risk to a woman’s life and health in pregnancy: “a variety of medical conditions in pregnant women have the potential to affect health and cause complications that may be life threatening.” For example, about one in a thousand women get cancer during pregnancy.[88] To delay treatment until birth would be dangerous if not deadly to the pregnant woman, while to treat the woman while pregnant would be dangerous if not deadly to the embryo or fetus.

Due to its total ban on abortion, Nicaragua recently denied cancer treatment to a ten-weeks pregnant woman with cancer suspected to have spread to her brain, lungs, and breasts.[89] The anti-abortion news service decried calls to permit her to terminate the pregnancy as unnecessary.[90] Ultimately, the woman was allowed chemotherapy, and as a result, the fetus was stillborn five months later.[91] In this case, as in many others, the life of the woman could only be saved at the expense of that of the embryo or fetus. Yet under “personhood” laws, the embryo or fetus has the same right to life as the woman, so any priority given to her life must be regarded as criminally suspect.

Ultimately, under an enforced “personhood” law, a woman might not be able to obtain an abortion even if she feared for her heath or life. Depending on legislative actions and prosecutorial zeal, doctors might not be willing to terminate a pregnancy except in cases of extreme risk to a woman’s life. In cases of lesser risk to a woman’s health or uncertain risk, doctors likely would be wary about terminating a pregnancy, fearing prosecution. Women might even need to obtain bureaucratic or judicial approval to obtain an abortion, resulting in potentially dangerous delays. The result would be that some women would face increased danger of permanent physical injury or death.

Abortions for Rape, Incest, and Fetal Deformity

By establishing rights from conception, Amendment 62 and other “personhood” measures would outlaw abortion for pregnancies resulting from rape and incest. Whether the embryo was created in an act of consensual love or brutal force would not impact its legal rights. Without “morning after” medication or abortion to protect themselves from pregnancy, brutalized girls and women might be forced to endure an inescapable reminder of their attack for nine months thereafter, if not longer. Recall that Colorado Right to Life asked candidates whether they “agree that abortion is always wrong, even when the baby’s father is a criminal (a rapist),” and numerous respondents answered yes. While a small fraction of abortions terminate pregnancy resulting from rape or incest, in those few cases this legal implication of “personhood” measures become very important.

Amendment 62 also would outlaw the abortion of severely deformed fetuses without any reasonable hope of a life outside the womb. Although women’s bodies usually naturally abort in such cases, they do not always do so. A 2008 article in Boulder Weekly quotes a doctor from Georgia who discusses the devastating effects on parents if abortion is forbidden in such cases:

There were countless couples who got up and told their story [in a legislative hearing in Georgia] about how they had to have an abortion because of a child that was an[en]cephalic [missing most of the brain] or deformed in some terrible way… [T]o think that you have to carry that child, go through the pain of the delivery process and then watch it die…[92]

Recall that some variants of the “personhood” language would explicitly ban abortion “regardless of…[a fetus's] level of functioning,” and clearly that is the intent of every “personhood” measure. Under Amendment 62, aborting a deformed fetus would be just as much murder as killing a deformed infant. Thus, under “personhood” laws, painful family decisions would become political spectacles for anti-abortion activists under the false banner of “protecting life,” just as happened in the Terri Schiavo case. Leslie Hanks, who helped submit Amendment 62 to the Secretary of State, attempted to “peacefully but physically intervene” in the Schiavo case, and no doubt she would be equally prepared to intervene in the private decisions of Colorado families.[93]

Read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.


This post is drawn from Ari Armstrong’s and my new policy paper: The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception. I’m currently posting the full paper as a series of blog posts. You can read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.

The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception

By Ari Armstrong and Diana Hsieh, Ph.D
A policy paper written for the Coalition for Secular Government (
Published on August 31, 2010

The Destructive Effects of ‘Personhood’

Bans of Elective Abortions

If fully enforced, Amendment 62 and comparable measures would ban all abortions, except perhaps in cases of extreme risk to the mother’s life. As a result, the measure would cause permanent injury or death to some at-risk women, as we shall see. Even in less dire circumstances, the measure would do serious harm to women (and their partners and families) by forcing them to bring any pregnancy to term, regardless of the woman’s judgment about her best course in life.

The potential impact of “personhood” measures depends partly on how many women seek abortions. In 2006, there were around 4.3 million births in the U.S.[70] The same year, there were around 846,000 legal abortions.[71] Put another way, there were around five live births for every abortion. The Guttmacher Institute reports for 2005: “In Colorado, 100,500 of the 1,001,833 women of reproductive age became pregnant in 2005. 69% of these pregnancies resulted in live births and 16% in induced abortions.”[72] In other words, according to the proponents of Amendment 62, around 16,000 Colorado women committed murder via abortion in 2005. According to the logic and stated intent of the measure, had it been in effect then those women should have been arrested, tried, and punished with life in prison or the death penalty.

Most abortions take place early in a pregnancy. Viability, the age at which a fetus possibly can survive outside the womb with advanced medical assistance, generally is considered to be around 24 weeks at the earliest. In 2006, 62 percent of abortions were performed within the eighth week, and only 1.3 percent of abortions were performed beyond the 21st week.[73] Abortion generally takes place in the first trimester, long before the fetus is viable. By granting zygotes the legal status of persons from the moment of fertilization, Amendment 62 would outlaw abortions even in the earliest stages of pregnancy.

Why do women get abortions? A 2005 article in Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health published relevant polling results. Thirteen percent of women cited “Possible problems affecting the health of the fetus.” Twelve percent cited “Physical problems with my health.” One percent got an abortion because of rape, and fewer than half of a percent got an abortion because of incest. The most popular answer given (where women could list multiple reasons) was, “Having a baby would dramatically change my life,” at 74 percent. Many women also offered financial reasons (73 percent), lack of a partner or problems with a romantic relationship (48 percent), or desire not to have another child (38 percent).[74]

It is clear that most abortions are elective. It is equally clear that, if fully enforced, Amendment 62 (and comparable measures) would totally ban such abortions.

Most Americans support restrictions or bans on elective abortions. Gallup found that, while 19 percent of Americans said that abortion should be “illegal in all circumstances,” 54 percent said it should be “legal only under certain circumstances.” (Twenty-four percent said it should be “legal under any circumstances.”) Older results from Gallup suggest that many Americans favor legal abortion only “when the woman’s life is endangered,” “when the child would be born with a life-threatening illness,” or “when the pregnancy was caused by rape or incest.”[75]

However, contrary to that popular opinion, any ban on elective abortions, whether via “personhood” laws or other anti-abortion laws, would have far-reaching and disastrous consequences. (A later section of this paper will address the morality of elective abortions.)

Under a ban of elective abortions, a woman would be legally compelled to add a child to her family, even if she is not physically, emotionally, or financially prepared to raise the child, and regardless of the costs to her, her partner, or any existing children. True, a woman could instead opt to put the child up for adoption, and that is a good option for some. However, that requires months of pregnancy, delivery of the child, physical recovery, the time and stress of finding a suitable adoptive family, the emotional trauma of giving up a child, lifelong angst about the child’s fate, and possible worry about a future reunion. Given these high costs, it is no surprise that many women seek an elective abortion, even when illegal.

If a single state, such as Colorado, banned abortions, women who wanted an abortion would simply travel (or move) to other states to obtain one. However, the aim of “personhood” advocates is to impose universal abortion bans. What then?

Only the naive imagine that an abortion ban would put an end to elective abortion. Many women would continue to seek abortions through illegal means, either by using legal drugs and herbs to illegally induce an abortion, inflicting physical trauma on themselves to induce an abortion, buying illegal drugs to induce abortion, or turning to underground practitioners of abortion.

Rachel Benson Gold writes for the Guttmacher Institute:

Estimates of the number of illegal abortions in the 1950s and 1960s ranged from 200,000 to 1.2 million per year. …One stark indication of the prevalence of illegal abortion was the death toll. In 1930, abortion was listed as the official cause of death for almost 2,700 women–nearly one-fifth (18%) of maternal deaths recorded in that year. …By 1965, the number of deaths due to illegal abortion had fallen to just under 200, but illegal abortion still accounted for 17% of all deaths attributed to pregnancy and childbirth that year. And these are just the number that were officially reported; the actual number was likely much higher.[76]

With the imposition of harsh legal penalties for abortion, women would be less likely to seek professional medical assistance in cases of a “back-alley” abortion gone wrong, leading to more deaths and permanent injury.

The enforcement implications for elective abortion bans are alarming. Under today’s laws, police officers routinely pose as prostitutes or drug buyers to “bust” johns and drug dealers. If abortion were outlawed, police officers could also pose as abortion providers in an attempt to ensnare women seeking abortions, then arrest and prosecute them. Or police officers might pose as pregnant women seeking abortions in order to arrest and prosecute doctors providing illegal abortions.

Moreover, women who sought an abortion could, under an enforced “personhood” measure, be arrested under attempted murder or related statutes. If a parent threatened to murder his or her born child, arresting the parent would result in physically separating the parent from the child, thereby keeping the child safe. However, a pregnant woman arrested for attempted murder or menacing could not be physically separated from the embryo or fetus. Instead, any woman seeking to terminate her pregnancy would have to be physically restrained until the fetus was forcibly delivered under state supervision. Thus, the ultimate alternative to legal abortion is police officers strapping an uncooperative woman to her bed for weeks or months and forcing her to give birth–then throwing her in prison for attempted murder.

Read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.

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