What is a “potential person”? What does it mean to have a “right to be born”? Who or what is a “missing person”? What obligations, if any, do we have to help potential persons to be born?
Recent attempts to define one-celled fertilized eggs, or zygotes, as a human beings have introduced new terminology into the birth control debate. But just what are the legal, moral, and practical implications of adopting these abstract and ill defined concepts?
Reflecting on those notions, I realized that I personally have kept many potential people from being born. I don’t feel guilty about this, but there are moments when I speculate about those missing people and what their lives might have been like. Before getting into how I caused those potential people “not to be,” it is important to recognize the role history and technology play in our ability to deal with these issues.
Public sanitation, abundant food supplies, and vaccinations allowed more people to live beyond childhood and reach reproductive age. How many potential people are missing because their parents did not live long enough to reproduce? My sister, Dianne, died in 1949 at the age of two and a half, a few years before Salk’s polio vaccine. Even at her young age, Dianne had 200 eggs waiting for the right time to “ripen” to become her children and my nieces and nephews. But those potential people have gone missing.
Then there is “the pill” around which much of the current controversy is centered. Created in 1951 by chemist Carl Djerassi, the pill allowed women an easy way to limit their offspring. How many “missing people” are the result of the pill?
One the other side of the balance sheet, modern medicine made the birth of people possible who never would have existed without it. Since 1952, Salk and Sabin’s vaccines have saved millions from early death allowing the creation of numerous souls who would not have otherwise existed.
I am friends with a couple who came very close to having no grandchildren. Their daughter, in her early 20s, had a brain aneurysm. Without modern surgical technology, she would have died before reproducing.
Louise Brown, born July 25, 1978, was the first test tube baby. As of 2010, over four million people have been created in a similar manner. Many of these people, including Louise Brown, have given birth to humans who like their parents would have never existed otherwise. And in vitro fertilization (IVF) is but one incredible technology that helps infertile couples give birth to humans who nature alone never would have created.
I’m not a medical doctor or chemist. I did not invent a revolutionary birth control method or participate in abortions. How I blocked the birth of potential people is not revolutionary but ordinary, the same way you blocked the birth of other potential people. Yet the numbers are staggering, more than billions or even trillions.
Male ejaculates contain 100 million sperm. On the night I was conceived, 100 million minus 1 souls were relegated to the unborn. Had I or one of my 100 million potential siblings not resulted in a conception, Dad’s next ejaculate might have fertilized Mom’s egg. But my potential life had begun and those 100 million potential people were likewise relegated to the unborn.
During my gestation and nursing stages, more potential siblings were denied the opportunity to develop into living, breathing, feeling, thinking people. Considering all the possible sperm-egg combinations that could have resulted in a conception, I alone have blocked the existence of more souls than have ever been born. And so have you.
Would my family or the world have been better served with one of those unborn? Would one have cured cancer? Won a Nobel, Pulitzer, or Olympic gold? I have not come close to those accomplishments.
And what about my three living siblings? I love them all and the nieces and nephews they have given me. But might some of those trillions of possible siblings have been better playmates? Which one would have made enough money to give me lavish birthday presents? I’ve never been on a cruise.
My mother didn’t have the critical information or technology to decide which of us would exist. Medical science could not scan the genetics of Dad’s sperm and her eggs to give them clues as to how those potential people might turn out. But our technology is moving in that direction. We are entering Huxley’s Brave New World.
Today there is a popular test known as Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD). Like in vitro fertilization (IVF), the mother’s egg is extracted and fertilized with the father’s sperm in a test tube. After the fertilized egg divides three times into an 8-celled embryo, doctors take one of those cells to test for genetic diseases. If it is disease free, the 7-celled embryo is implanted in the woman’s uterus to produce a healthy baby. This procedure is used regularly in the Jewish community which suffers from numerous genetic diseases.
Currently, this procedure is used primarily to choose embryos that do not carry defective genes. They can and have been used to select the sex of the embryos. In the future, parents will be able to select which embryos to implant based on its potential height, hair color, personality, wet or dry ear wax, and thousands of other possible gene variations. Should parents be allowed to sort through dozens, hundreds, or thousands of embryos to make these choices? Or should parents be forced to take nature’s random draw.
‘Culture lag’ is how social scientists refer to situations like this. Our cultural rules and laws on human reproduction lag behind our fertility technologies. But the personhood laws are taking our culture back in time, rather than catching them up to today’s technology.
A century ago there were no birth control clinics in the United States. It wasn’t until 1916 that Margaret Sanger opened the nation’s first clinic in Brooklyn, New York. Nine days later she and her staff were arrested for distributing contraceptive information. She was found guilty and served 30 days in prison.
First doctors and eventually anyone was allowed to distribute birth control information. However, the practice of birth control was banned, even for married couples, by numerous States. It took the 1965 Supreme Court decision, Griswold v. Connecticut, to give people the legal right to use contraception.
As science and birth control technology has marched forward, cultural warriors have tried to take us back to those earlier times where birth control options were limited and even discussing the topic was penalized.
While the 1st Amendment protects us from returning to 1916, there has been some backsliding. Reagan placed a “gag rule” on foreign nongovernmental family-planning groups. If they provided abortions, or even information on abortions, they were banned from receiving U.S. funds. President Obama rescinded this rule in 2009.
Similarly “abstinence only” school curriculums are not allowed to discuss birth control technologies. Schools can receive federal funds to cover abstinence sex education programs but no funds are available for comprehensive sex education programs.
Originally conceived of as a backdoor way to abolish abortion, personhood laws are taking us back to a time prior to 1965 when we were not allowed to use contraception. Rick Santorum openly advocates that we overturn Griswold v. Connecticut and allow States to ban contraception.
Romney, Gingrich, and Paul have not supported Santorum’s proposal, but they don’t appear to understand how contraception works. Personhood laws would not just ban abortions, they would ban IUDs and most birth control pills which inhibit zygotes (persons?) from being born by not allowing them to implant themselves in the woman’s uterus.
For example, Oklahoma’s Senate Bill 1433 defines a person as beginning at conception and “at every stage of development (has) all the rights, privileges, and immunities available to other persons, citizens, and residents of this state.” While the wording of these laws vary, all define a single fertilized human egg, or zygote, as having the rights of multi-celled, living and breathing humans.
All Republican Presidential candidates have endorsed personhood laws and we can expect one in the Republican 2012 platform.
In addition to banning abortion, IUDs, and most birth control pills, these laws would ban technologies like Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) that dramatically reduced genetic defects in the Jewish population. Similar programs to eliminate sickle cell anemia in African Americans could likewise be banned.
Our challenge is to bring our laws up to our current level of technology. We should not take our culture back a century. Conservatives claim they are for individual rights over the rights of government. But on the issue of family planning they are squarely on the side of stripping a woman’s right to control her body and returning that right to the government.