Human Exceptionalism

Colorado Initiative Declaring Personhood at Completion of Fertilization

I read an op/ed column in today’s SF Chronicle by a pundit I don’t know, Tom Teepen, that ranted hysterically about something called the Colorado “Human Life Amendment” that will appear on November’s ballot. From his column:

There will be immediate consequences if the proposition is enacted. The morning-after pill and IUDs for birth control, for instance, would become contraband, but further, the explosion of lawsuits would be atomic.

Could a pregnant woman be charged with child endangerment or child abuse if she is spotted smoking or having a drink? Must she be denied any medical procedure that she might come to need if it could potentially harm the fetus?

Women or girls who have an illegal abortion would be charged with murder and, inasmuch as the act would incontestably have been premeditated, could be executed.

Really? Sounds serious. I had heard vague comments about this proposal but had not given it much thought, so I decided to check what’ going on. Here’s the text of the actual amendment:

Person Defined: As used in sections 3, 6, and 25 of Article II of the state constitution, the terms “person” or “persons” shall include any human being from the moment of fertilization.

About this, Teepen claimed:

The question of just when life begins has been a conundrum since deepest antiquity. The folk answer has been at the quickening, when the fetus becomes rambunctious enough to make its presence known.

So Teepen would support personhood protections after quickening? Don’t hold your breath.

Besides, I always find it rich when the side of the political spectrum that claims the mantle of “rational,” fall back on “folk wisdom” to justify their points.

In reality, the Human Life Amendment is misnamed and Teepen has misstated the issue. The question isn’t a question of “when human life begins.” Basic embryology tells us it begins biologically–which is what human life is–when fertilization is completed, indeed, at the zygote stage the new individual has a unique genetic makeup (unless shared with an identical twin or triplet), and his or her gender is wired in.

But personhood is something different. It isn’t a scientific question involving biology. It is a philosophical determination. So, what voters are really being asked to decide is when should a human life be given moral value? Thus, the campaign will force people to contemplate moral issues they would rather shrug off.

This discussion, if it is focused properly, could be important, even if the amendment loses, as it could serve to highlight the danger presented to universal human rights by the Peter Singers of the world who have been pushing personhood restrictions for years–to the point that many in bioethics assert that human non persons include not only all embryos and fetuses, but also infants to about one year of age, people with Alzheimer’s, the Terri Schiavos of the world, etc. The consequence is that these vulnerable human beings are being targeted for killing, organ harvesting, and as experimental lab rats.

So, I think it is good that the people of Colorado will be forced to grapple with this issue. But the discussion shouldn’t be about abortion. The Amendment would not stop abortion so long as it remains a federal constitutional right, and given the S. Court’s decisions re birth control decided before Roe v. Wade, it seems impossible that, despite Teepen’s hysteria, it would inhibit birth control. But it might just get people to say no to the increasing tendency to instrumentalize human life for crass exploitation.

If the media don’t demagogue the issue like Teepen did, it could be an interesting debate.