MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Last year's GOP takeover of the U.S. House, as well as statehouses across the country, dramatically changed the nation's abortion debate. Already this year, states have passed dozens of laws restricting the procedure. And an effort to strip funding from Planned Parenthood nearly shut down the federal government last month.
As NPR's Julie Rovner reports, all this change has given a boost to an even more far-reaching effort to legally redefine when life begins.
JULIE ROVNER: When life begins, of course, is a theological question. The legal question is when someone becomes a person. But even that varies under the law, says Alexa Kolbi-Molinas. She's an attorney with the ACLU.
Mr. ALEXA KOLBI-MOLINAS (Attorney, Reproductive Freedom Project, American Civil Liberties Union): The definition of personhood ranges if you're talking about properly law.
ROVNER: That would include things like real estate and personal property.
Ms. KOLBI-MOLINAS: Or inheritance.
ROVNER: Say a grandparent dies, can a fetus share in the proceeds of the will?
Ms. KOLBI-MOLINAS: Or how the census is taken.
ROVNER: Who exactly gets counted? All those differences are exactly what Keith Mason wants to change. He's president of Personhood USA, a group that's trying to rewrite the laws and constitutions of every state to recognize someone as a person - here's how he puts it...
Mr. KEITH MASON (President, Personhood USA): It's exactly at creation. That's fertilization or it's when the sperm meets the egg.
ROVNER: Mason says the basic problem is that science has advanced faster than policymaking.
Mr. MASON: We know, without a shadow of a doubt, when human life begins. But our laws have not caught up to what we know.
ROVNER: And according to his organization, those laws should recognize every fertilized egg as an individual and complete human being.
Mr. MASON: At the heart of what we're doing is saying that being human is enough to have rights and privileges to live, and all humans should be considered persons.
ROVNER: 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.
Dan Grossman is an OB/GYN at the University of California, San Francisco.
Dr. DAN GROSSMAN: The medical community has really been quite clear about when pregnancy begins. And that definition is really that pregnancy begins once implantation occurs.
ROVNER: 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 it can be detected by hormone changes in her urine. But there's another reason, Grossman says.
Dr. GROSSMAN: It's really only about half of those fertilized eggs actually result in an ongoing pregnancy.
ROVNER: Meaning they either never begin dividing or never implant. Or they do implant but spontaneously abort. That can happen so early in pregnancy, the woman never even knows she was pregnant.
So from a medical point of view, considering every fertilized egg a person, with a person's full rights, wouldn't make a lot of sense, he says. But if Personhood USA succeeds, Grossman says, it could threaten the use of a long list of commonly used contraceptives, including some birth control pills and the IUD, among others.
Dr. GROSSMAN: This redefinition really could end up reclassifying all of these effective and safe birth control methods as abortifacients, or agents that induce abortion.
ROVNER: That's because some of those methods may act not only to prevent fertilization but, if fertilization does occur, to prevent that fertilized egg from implanting in a woman's uterus. But does that equal an abortion?
Dr. GROSSMAN: And it's certainly not a view that's held by the medical profession or that's based on medical evidence. And it's certainly not consistent with what American women and couples want and use to plan their families.
ROVNER: But ACLU attorney Kolbi-Molinas says that banning forms of birth control, along with abortion, is exactly what the personhood backers want.
Ms. KOLBI-MOLINAS: Their intention is to ban abortion. Their intention is to ban some of the most commonly used forms of birth control.
ROVNER: Personhood USA president, Keith Mason, doesn't deny that.
Mr. MASON: Certainly women, my wife included, would want to know if the pills that they're taking would, in fact, kill a unique human individual. And I think there's a lot of misinformation about that.
ROVNER: Kolbi-Molinas also says declaring a fertilized egg a person could have more far-reaching and even potentially dangerous consequences, by legally separating a woman from her pregnancy. Take, for example, a potentially life-threatening ectopic pregnancy. That's where a fertilized egg implants outside the uterus.
Ms. KOLBI-MOLINAS: Ectopic pregnancies are not viable pregnancies. And so it is essential that 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.
ROVNER: And it's not just medical questions raised by personhood laws. There's still more legal questions. Would pregnant women be counted as two people for the purposes of using carpool lanes on the highway? Could fetuses inherit property?
Arguments like that helped defeat personhood amendments in Colorado in 2008 and 2010. But Mason isn't giving up. Voters in Mississippi could vote on a personhood amendment to their state constitution this November, although the ACLU is challenging that initiative in court.
Personhood USA hopes to get proposals on the ballot in nearly half the states by 2012.
Julie Rovner, NPR News.
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