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Opinion: Human rights for embryos? Initiative at odds with science

Fertilized eggs could be granted human rights, depending on how Mississippi voters cast their ballots Tuesday on Initiative 26. The ballot measure, otherwise known as the "personhood" amendment, proposes to amend the state's constitution to redefine "person" to include "every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the functional equivalent thereof." Among other things, it could mean that couples who have turned to fertility clinics for help becoming parents won’t be allowed to ever destroy their unused fertilized eggs.

The polls say the anti-abortion referendum is likely to pass. 

First Read: Personhood measure divides conservative ranks

It shouldn’t.  

Not because passage would mean the end of all abortions, even for rape and incest. And not because its passage would create absurd public policy consequences: Do embryos get counted in the census? Could they inherit property? 

The reason this law makes for bad public policy is that it is completely at odds with what science knows to be true about embryos and fetuses.

A statewide vote has a lot of women in fear over the future of certain forms of birth control. NBC's Than Truong reports.

Those who defend the amendment say they have science on their side. "The unborn child in the womb is scientifically proven to be a human being,” says Jennifer Mason, communications director for Personhood USA, the Arvada, Col.-based national advocacy group pushing for passage of Initiative 26. But Mason has no idea what she is talking about.

It is true that for centuries science has shown that all human beings begin as fertilized eggs.  But it is not true that all fertilized eggs can or do produce human beings.  In fact, it is so utterly wrong to say that every fertilized egg is a person, that to even suggest that science provides support for enacting the initiative is utterly absurd.

What are the odds of a fertilized egg becoming a person?

This is what we know: During the period of embryonic development that begins with fertilization and ends with successful implantation, about 50 percent of human conceptions fail to survive. The main reason for this high failure rate is the inability of huge numbers of fertilized eggs to implant.  

What science has found is that around half of all conceptions don't make it to implantation. Calling a fertilized egg a person flies in the face of this cruel biological reality. Half of all fertilized eggs cannot even become an embryo, much less a person.

Indeed, given the grim odds that face fertilized eggs, no one in science or medicine refers to a fertilized egg as an embryo unless it manages to implant. By talking about embryos and fertilized eggs as equivalent, supporters of Initiative 26 are not even using the correct scientific definition of an embryo.

First Read: Personhood measure divides conservative ranks

If the rest of the story of human reproduction -- as medicine and science know the facts to be -- is brought to bear, things only get worse for Initiative 26.

Sadly, all too many couples know about the high rate of spontaneous abortion and stillbirth that haunts embryonic and fetal development. Roughly, one in six embryos will spontaneously abort or produce fetuses that do not develop properly and die in utero. 

There are a huge number of embryos that are not properly genetically programmed for life. Nearly all of these completely lack the biological ability to develop into anything resembling a viable baby.  Legislation -- like that about to be voted on in Mississippi -- that declares fertilized eggs to be persons from the moment of conception simply ignores that the failure rate of human embryos is very high.  A considerable number of embryos and fetuses never have any chance of producing a baby. 

Medicine and science know very well what many millions of heart-broken would be parents around the world know first-hand: To call all embryos “persons” flies in the face of spontaneous abortion, stillbirth and fetal death.

In the push to declare fertilized eggs “persons” advocates claim science is on their side.  But it is only by ignoring what science has learned about the long odds that face fertilized eggs that anyone could even suggest that a fertilized egg is a person.

Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.