The Kiddy Pool: Persons of Interest in Mississippi's Amendment

The Kiddy Pool: Persons of Interest in Mississippi's Amendment October 10, 2011

Every week in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.

A controversial issue will be featured on ballots in Mississippi this November. Voters will weigh in on the “Personhood Amendment” that would extend the definition of “personhood” and its attendant legal protections to unborn babies. This legislation bears significant implications for the legality of abortion in Mississippi, and perhaps beyond, as other states consider similar measures for next year’s ballots.

The ballot initiative takes on one of the most fundamental questions within the conversation about abortion: when does life begin? It is nearly impossible to discuss or debate abortion without defining that point of origin, though many in the conversation ignore the question or take for granted that all participants are working with the same terms. Proponents of the Mississippi measure assert that life begins at conception; I happen to agree with that point, but I’m not unaware of the slipperiness of that landmark event. Take what I think of as “pregnancy math,” where a woman’s pregnancy dates from the first day of her last menstrual cycle. That’s usually about two weeks before conception. Even during the fertile period when conception is most likely, sperm can live for up to 72 hours, so a single act of intercourse can result in conception 3 days later.

Pregnancy itself provides complicated medical terminology to differentiate between stages of development. The initial meeting of sperm and egg results in a zygote, which develops into a more complex cell group known as a blastocyst. As cell differentiation occurs and cells begin to take on different functions (like kidney cells), the cells become an embryo. At eight weeks, a pregnancy moves from the embryonic stage to the fetal stage. Then there are the differences between a miscarriage and a stillbirth, both of which signify the loss of a pregnancy. The difference is developmental and chronological, with stillbirths typically marked after 20 weeks of a pregnancy, when a fetus would have had greater chances of viability outside of the womb. As complicated as the language of pregnancy can be, none of these medical terms reference “personhood,” because that concept is not medical but moral.

That is not to say, of course, that medicine isn’t moral or that it shouldn’t be (it’s more a question of what kind of morals), but the Mississippi “Personhood Amendment” is not concerned with development or gestation period. It’s concerned with the moral standing of a life conceived, and even if knowledge of the instant of conception is impossible, knowing after the fact changes the moral terrain moving forward. Opponents of abortion typically cite here the argument of potential—that what separates an early pregnancy from a random grouping of cells is not the nature of the cells but their potential to develop into a human being. Only time will tell where the voters of Mississippi will land on this issue, but their ballot is certainly laden with potential.

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