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 (www.SecularGovernment.us)
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.
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.”
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.
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.