07 November 2011

On Personhood and Schrödinger's Cat

On a beautiful July afternoon, nine years ago, we had a late lunch with friends who were visiting from Iowa. As I sat in that sidewalk cafe on Madison Avenue and sipped my cold glass of Sauvignon Blanc, I contemplated the fact that I was pregnant.
Wait, stop. I wasn't drinking while pregnant.

While we sat on wicker bistro chairs in the warm summer sun, our tiny embryos were dividing in their sterile petri dish in a lab in New Jersey. So, I wasn't actually pregnant - the embryos weren't in me, and wouldn't be for another day or so. And even then, in that interminable two week wait before the pregnancy test - between the careful transfer of the embryos to my uterus and the cross-all-fingers-and-hope-it-works implantation of one of them into that plush endometrial lining - even then I wasn't pregnant. Really.

You've probably heard that Mississippi has a measure on the ballot tomorrow to define a person as a person from the moment of fertilization.
Be it Enacted by the People of the State of Mississippi: SECTION 1. Article III of the constitution of the state of Mississippi is hereby amended BY THE ADDITION OF A NEW SECTION TO READ: Section 33. Person defined. As used in this Article III of the state constitution, "The term 'person' or 'persons' shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof." This initiative shall not require any additional revenue for implementation.

People. This is ridiculous. A fertilized egg does not a person make. What this amendment is is an all out assault on women's reproductive rights. Besides the obvious - a ban on abortion in any way, shape or form - it would disallow any form of contraception which prevents the fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus.

Shall we talk about the definition of pregnant?

"Having a child or other offspring developing in the body." Okay then - I was in New York, my embryos were in New Jersey. Not pregnant.

Now, let's review how a pregnancy is calculated. In the normal course of events, when pregnancy occurs without recourse to modern technology, the obstetrician calculates the age of the pregnancy based on the last menstrual period.

So - from last menstrual period to fertilization is about two weeks. It takes about two weeks from fertilization before there's enough human chorionic gonadotropin in the maternal blood/urine to diagnose a pregnancy. You counting? That's four weeks from the last menstrual period to the Big Fat Postitive, and when you get that BFP, you're decreed to be four weeks pregnant. But, you got two weeks for nothing in there, and the pregnancy was undetectable for the second two weeks.

Let's say the fertilized egg fails to implant in the uterus. Was there a pregnancy at all? What about those two weeks for nothing? If the fertilized egg is the determinant, but said egg fails to implant, were you pregnant for two weeks plus as many days as it takes from fertilization to the demise of the unimplanted embryo?

It's starting to be a little Schrödinger's cat-like, no? During those two weeks between the beginning of the last menstrual period and the fertilization of that egg, one is pregnant and not pregnant at the same time. Let's be ridiculous and extrapolate backwards: each and every sexually active female between puberty and menopause is pregnant for two weeks every month. Um, right. Of course not.

Here's the thing - there's no way to know which fertilized egg is going to make it, and most of them don't, because of an inhospitable environment, bad chromosomes, or improper cell division. If the fertilized egg doesn't go to become a screeching newborn baby, even in the absence of birth control methods that might interfere with implantation, should the mother be held responsible? No. It's the way of nature. This whole "personhood" amendment is based on bad science, and is full of unintended consequences. Don't vote for it, Mississippi.


  1. It's enraging, and completely lacking in scientific thought. Yet another embrace of the anti-intellectual, and yes, an all-out war on reproductive choice.

  2. The Schrödinger's cat comparison is dead-on. Brilliant as usual.

  3. Thank you, Maggie. It's encouraging to see that people are taking notice of what might actually happen in Mississippi tomorrow.

  4. i couldnt agree more. but i think trying to introduce logic into the missippi debate is pointless - this amendment is indefensible in every way.

  5. Nicely stated. I was never comfortable saying that I had a "baby" inside of me - it always felt to me like a "potential baby" that wouldn't really exist until a doctor handed it to me.

  6. Anonymous11:59 AM

    I love the analogy! This amendment is ridiculous.

  7. This...

    "Okay then - I was in New York, my embryos were in New Jersey. Not pregnant."

    Made my day.

    Well done. Also, Mississippi, just say no.

  8. This is the state that NPR just reported has more people on food stamps than any state in the country. They can't even feed the kids they've already got.

  9. "or other offspring"? ?

  10. MS would love to have passed this bill and to count every woman as pregnant for 2 weeks of every month because for half the fucking year they wouldn't have to address real, live, walking, talking, opinionated humans as such.


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