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Does this look like a person to you?

The famous Monty Python song Every Sperm is Sacred is about to become a sad reality in Mississippi. Amendment 26, also known as the Personhood Amendment, is simple on its face:

The term 'person' or 'persons' shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.

That means a fertilized egg, like the one pictured to the right, would be recognized as a person under this new law, supposedly with all the same rights and protections as the woman who carries it.

The sponsors of this amendment, which will appear on the Nov. 8 ballot this year, and which is expected to pass, are not shy about stating their reasoning for such an amendment: the amendment sets up a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade in the hopes of seeing it overturned. If a fertilized egg is legally recognized as a person, the thinking goes, then the destruction of a fertilized egg—whether through abortion or even use of certain types of contraception like the IUD and the morning-after pill, which prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in a woman's uterus—could be recognized as murder, and therefore prosecuted as such.

But that's not all the proponents of the bill hope to achieve. Earlier this week, The New York Times reported:

“I view it as transformative,” said Brad Prewitt, a lawyer and executive director of the Yes on 26 campaign, which is named for the Mississippi proposition. “Personhood is bigger than just shutting abortion clinics; it’s an opportunity for people to say that we’re made in the image of God.”

Of course, the state has no business making such declarations—that we are made in the image of God—the law of the land. But hardcore believers, like proponents of the Personhood Amendment, seek to destroy the separation between church and state, and they see this amendment as another step in that direction. And of course it would make abortion, contraception and embryonic stem cell research a crime.

At Slate, David Plotz and his colleagues posed some semi-tongue-in-cheek questions about the meaning of Personhood for eggs: Can you drink at 20 years and three months? Can you collect Social Security at 64? Would a "dependent embryo" be tax deductible? Would sharing an ultrasound at Facebook be considered child pornography? How does this affect the census?

Perhaps Slate was just trying to be clever, but the consequences of granting personhood to a fertilized egg are actually unknown. In 2008, when Colorado attempted to pass a personhood amendment, National Public Radio interviewed Professor of Law and Bioethics Jessica Berg on exactly these types of questions:

[T]he amendment could lead to some bizarre situations — such as counting fertilized eggs in the state census and pregnant drivers using the HOV lanes.

"If you don't know you're pregnant at that point, and you drink or do something dangerous — or you do something problematic very early on [...] have you committed child abuse and endangerment?" Berg wonders.

Berg says that as written, the amendment would classify all the fertilized eggs used in fertility labs — which number in the hundreds of thousands — as persons.

"You could never get rid of them," she says of the fertilized eggs. "It's not clear whether you could freeze them, because we certainly don't have a concept of freezing indefinitely a person. It's not clear how you then adopt them — would you have to go through all the normal adoption proceedings?"

Berg isn't the only one to question what personhood status for fertilized eggs could mean. Other ethicists, lawyers and medical professionals are also at a loss for how to make sense of what fertility specialist Dr. Randall S. Hines describes as "biological ignorance":

Most fertilized eggs, he said, do not implant in the uterus or develop further.

“Once you recognize that the majority of fertilized eggs don’t become people, then you recognize how absurd this amendment is,” Dr. Hines said.

Yes, the amendment is absurd, but its implications are no laughing matter. Already, even without the legal recognition of a fertilized egg as a person, women face interrogation, prosecution and even jail time for the "crime" of miscarrying.

What happens, then, to women who miscarry under this new law? Will all miscarriages require police reports, trials, prison time, even the death penalty? After all, the majority of people who identify as "pro-life" also support capital punishment, and while they seek to protect fertilized eggs, they have no problem frying those eggs once they're outside the womb.

When voters in Mississippi go to the polls on Nov. 8 to vote on personhood, they'll also be selecting their next governor, but no matter how they vote, they'll end up with a governor who supports this "biological ignorance":

The Republican candidate, Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, is co-chairman of Yes on 26 and his campaign distributes bumper stickers for the initiative. The Democratic candidate, Johnny DuPree, the mayor of Hattiesburg and the state’s first black major-party candidate for governor in modern times, says he will vote for it though he is worried about its impact on medical care and contraception.

DuPree, by the way, is worried about the impact of the personhood amendment, but apparently, he's a lot more worried about his political future. As Irin Carmon at Salon reports:

Cristen Hemmins, an anti-26 activist and survivor of a brutal carjacking, rape and shooting, told me she'd gotten a call from Dupree after repeatedly contacting his office. Dupree reiterated that he opposes abortion but thought there should be some provisions for rape and incest victims. Moreover, he said, his daughter had had an ectopic pregnancy and eventually had a child through IVF, both situations potentially impacted by Personhood.

"I said, 'I don’t understand, if you're for all these things … why are you voting yes?'" Hemmins recalled. "[Dupree] said, 'I'm starting to see that there are issues … I've said I'm going to vote yes and it's too late to go back on it now. It'd destroy me politically.'"

It's a pretty sad commentary on the state of affairs in Mississippi when it's considered politically risky to stand up against this kind of insanity. Even some of the staunchest forced birthers, like National Right to Life and the Roman Catholic bishops oppose the Personhood Amendment. Of course, their opposition isn't ideological. They're just afraid it's a poor tactic that could backfire and set them back in their ultimate crusade to, yes, outlaw all abortion and birth control.

But even opposition from their fellow antichoice allies is no match for the proponents of personhood. So eager are they to see this amendment succeed in Mississippi, after failing to pass in other states, that, as Robin Marty reported, they came up with a particularly gruesome gimmick to promote their agenda: the "Conceived in Rape" tour. It is, as its name implies, a sick celebration of children whose mothers did not—or, more likely, could not—choose to abort rather than carry their rapist's baby to term. Forced birth circuit star Rebecca Kiessling explains at her website, and on tour, that her mother did not abort her when she was impregnated by her rapist because abortion was illegal at the time, and Rebecca is so "hurt" by this knowledge that she is compelled to ensure that all women, like her mother, are denied the right to terminate pregnancies conceived in rape. Rebecca, as an egg, had a right to her life; her mother did not.

Monty Python's musical declaration—"Every sperm is sacred. Every sperm is great. If a sperm is wasted, God gets quite irate."—may have been satire, but the proponents of the Personhood Amendment are dead serious.

This is the reality of the War on Women. As the forced birth movement has already been so successful at legislating barriers to abortion access, they are moving on to the next step. It isn't enough for them to take away a woman's right to terminate an unwanted, or even life-threatening, pregnancy. Now they want to take away contraception. They want to criminalize miscarriage. They want to force rape victims to carry their rapists' babies. They want a law that recognizes their interpretation of God and the Bible.

And they want to give legal rights and protections and recognized autonomy to fertilized eggs, as they simultaneously take away rights and protections from the women who carry them.  

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sun Oct 30, 2011 at 10:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by Abortion and Pro Choice.

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