Friday, June 17, 2011

NPR talks about redefing "personhood"

As some of you may have noticed, I am an NPR addict. Now that my commute is shorter, my NPR diet is getting a little smaller. Still, I managed to get in on a story on NPR on June 1st that amazed me. They dealt - in detail and nuance, with the issue of personhood.

One of my post popular posts on here is on the issue of personhood and when life begins. Back during the election when I was moving towards supporting Obama, I thought long and hard about the question of abortion, where life begins, what makes a person, and how the government and laws should act in those areas. Out of that came this post: The Beginning of Life, Implantation, and Politics.

I've never seen a secular news source actually deal with all those questions, they usually just focus on the abortion debate, and maybe the beginning of life. NPR's feature dug deeper. They discussed the beginning of life discussion of fertilization vs. implantation:

But while that fertilized egg may or may not signal the beginning of personhood, there's one thing it definitely does not begin. Medically, at least, fertilization does not mark the beginning of pregnancy.

"The medical community has really been quite clear about when pregnancy begins," says Dan Grossman, an obstetrician/gynecologist at the University of California, San Francisco, "and that definition is that pregnancy begins once implantation occurs."

That would be the implantation of the fertilized egg into the woman's uterus. One reason doctors don't consider a woman pregnant until after implantation is a practical one — that's when pregnancy can be detected by hormone changes in her urine.

But there's another reason, Grossman says. "It's really only about half of those fertilized eggs [that] actually result in an ongoing pregnancy."

The rest of the fertilized eggs either never begin dividing or never implant. Or they do implant but spontaneously abort. That can happen so early in pregnancy that the woman never even knows she was pregnant.

They address the point that if you define life as beginning at fertilization, the pill and IUD's should be off market as abortificants.

They also raise the question of ectopic pregnancies and the rights of a fetus if it is legally declared a person:

"Ectopic pregnancies are not viable pregnancies," she says. "And so it is essential an ectopic pregnancy be terminated as soon as possible. But by giving all fertilized eggs legal rights under the law, that calls into question what kind of methods a doctor can actually use to save a woman's life in a situation like this."
And it's not just medical questions raised by personhood laws. Would pregnant women be counted as two people for the purposes of using carpool lanes on the highway? Could fetuses inherit property?
 In any case, the NPR piece and my post (and especially the comments pushing back on everything I'd written) talk about an issue that I think very few Protestants or Evangelicals really deal with. We dislike abortion but without defining when life begins, we don't actually know what all IS an abortion. The Catholic perspective might be mocked for being so conservative, but I highly respect it for it's consistency, and after writing that post I decided that I couldn't, in good conscience, keep using the pill, patch, or ring, if I wasn't sure when life begins.


Jaimie said...

I think it's weird to say "If I don't know about X then I can't do Y." So much of life is dealing with uncertainty and trusting God. Hm, actually all of life. God sees our hearts, not what we unknowingly, accidentally, maybe-almost might have done. I wonder if Catholics are sort of playing God in this matter.

But, they'd say the same thing about people who take BC pills.

John said...
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Kacie said...

Well, if I was convinced that implantation was true, I could (as I used to) use the pill without worrying. Now I'm not convinced so ... I'm not comfortable with the level of risk there. Can't blame others, but that's where I'm at.

Wayward Disciple said...

Since the body itself "aborts" half of all fertilized eggs naturally, then it is hard to suppose that from God's point of view (if one may phrase it so) these fertilized eggs constitute persons. Otherwise we have to posit a God who has provided, in the natural order, for the continuous annihilation of half the human race.

Jaimie said...

I agree, Wayward. I think the same can be said for miscarriages.

Bob said...

It seems like the difference between conception and implantation is an arbitrary distinction when it comes to the beginning of life. Yes, implantation is necessary for pregnancy, but only provides the environment for life growth, not necessarily life itself.

Also, it seems like the distinction between conception and implantation only provides a a distinction for policy purposes (i.e. the allowance for more contraceptive options, etc.).

This is a very interesting conversation, Kacie. I've been reading a book called "Abortion: A Rational Look at An Emotional Issue," by R.C. Sproul for a post of my own on the issue.

Kacie said...

Bob, I'd agree with you, but conception itself is a bit arbitrary. It describes a process, not a moment.

Bob said...

You're right, Kacie. Conception is an arbitrary event in some senses... you can't make policy based upon it (or enforce any laws based upon it), because it's a hidden event.

I may have been inaccurate in using the word "conception," instead of the more accurate word "fertilization," which describes a moment in time. Conception is harder to define, while fertilization describes a very precise moment in time (even though it can happen up to a week after intercourse).

Still, it's hard to create policy around either one. So many pregnancies are naturally aborted before/after each step. Also, it's hard to make a decision about birth control based upon either definition.

It seems, though, that we're disagreeing over two things that are very close to the beginning of a pregnancy, while much of the debate on abortion lies around "viability" (which is how the Supreme Court limits it, from what I've heard).

Also, it would be interesting to hear your thoughts about why the pill, the patch, and the ring are questions in your mind. It seems like controlling your hormones (with the pill) would be an acceptable form of birth control in any case, because you're preventing the fertilization from happening in the first place, rather than actively forcing an early abortion.

Kacie said...

Yeah, Bob. I'd agree that most of this is all before what most current abortion policies are debating about. But - if we push abortion policies to be made at the beginning of life, then you have to define when that is. I think it's so sticky that I really don't think it should be defined at the national level... maaaaybe state. But most of all I think states and the church needs to wrestle with it.

The pill, the patch, and the ring would be totally okay with me if they only prevented fertilization. However, after research, I find that when using them fertilization still sometimes can happen. So - they also weaken the uterine wall so that a fertilized egg can't implant. If life begins at fertilization, then the pill, patch, and ring sometimes (though rarely) can cause abortions.

Daniel Becker said...

Book on Personhood