Sunday, November 18, 2007

Pro-Placenta And Proud Of It

In my opinion, the response to the Colorado proposed ballot initiative that would amend the state's constitution to define a fertilized egg as a "person" entitled to "inalienable rights, equality of justice, and due process of law" by those who don't regard females of reproductive age as things whose utility is to be decided by popular vote misses the mark.

Faced with a proposal to confer personhood to bits of tissue, those opposed to the initiative have been reduced to wondering what effect this law will have on miscarriages, debating whether treatment for ectopics would still be allowed on grounds of self-defense, and whether or not protecting the existence of human zygotes [will] automatically result in some sort of fascist police state. Talk about moving the Overton window!

Absent from all this is any mention of basic biology (ah, that pesky reality) and a discussion of why conferring legal rights to parts of internal organs is nonsense.

In a nutshell, if a fertilized egg (zygote) is defined as a "person", tumors acquire personhood, one of President Bush's daughters ceases to exist, and the placenta becomes entitled to "inalienable rights, equality of justice, and due process of law" (not that there's anything wrong with that, of course).

Let's briefly review some Biology 101:

1. Tumor persons.

Stages of human fertilization

Figure 3. Stages of human fertilization. Spermatozoa swim through the surrounding medium and cumulus mass (not shown) and bind to the surface of the zona pellucida. The acrosome reaction is stimulated by zona proteins and the acrosome reacted sperm penetrates the zona, enters the perivitelline space and binds to the oolemma via the equatorial segment. Oocyte processes surround the sperm head and it enters the ooplasm and decondenses.

Fertilization is not a momentary process. It's a complex sequence of events that takes about 24 hrs after the gametes come into contact.

Figure 3 above shows only a few of the stages of fertilization. Not included are the steps that lead to the formation of the female and male pronuclei and their fusion (syngamy).

So, at what point in this process does the tissue become a person?

Needles to say, this is a trick question. Because no matter what stage you pick you still end up conferring personhood to a bunch of tumors ( some types of hydatidiform moles, to be more exact).

An aside. This is a great pic of a complete mole/normal fetus twin gestation:

Complete mole

2. The fertilized egg shows cleavage.

The fertilized egg (zygote) is not an unique snowflake. Rather, it's the precursor of a bunch of totipotent cells [the zygote cleaves into two (then 4, 8, 16) cells called blastomeres], each of which could, if all goes well with the pregnancy, develop into an individual. In fact, twinning may occur up to 14 days after fertilization, well past the blastomeres stage.

3. Placental rights.

Take a look at this diagram of human embryonic development from the NIH:

Human embryonic development

Notice something interesting on the left side (Extraembryonic)? That's right, the placenta is part of the zygote-American. Which not only makes the placenta a "person", but it also entitles it him/her to "inalienable rights, equality of justice, and due process of law". Not there's anything wrong with that, of course. As someone who has always found the placenta to be quite extraordinary in both form and function, I'm all for due process of law for this particular organ.

So, to sum up, when confronting the destructive fantasy of some people that their personal beliefs should govern medical care and be enacted into law, before engaging in a game of "what if", it's best to challenge their fundamental premise that ideology and propaganda should trump reality. [Not that this strategy was all that effective when it came to the issue of "partial-birth" abortion, when the SCOTUS managed to impose a medical standard of care for a nonexistent procedure, but hope springs eternal and all that.]



At 3:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ema, I agree that the key to defeating this ballot initiative (and the host of copy cat imitators that are soon to follow) is to highlight how this amendment is going to make a mess of existing law and medical practice. But, since giving the public a crash course in basic biology that they care about/understand isn’t exactly feasible (despite awesome charts and pictures), I think we’re going to have to mobilize our docs and scientists to give their professional, non-partisan opinion on the matter. That said, it would be great if we could clearly explain how this initiative isn’t about “babies.”

At 11:17 PM, Blogger ema said...


If the preferred course of action (bio crash course) isn't feasible, I don't think the docs/scientists gracing the public with their opinion is the way to go. That's because you're still using reality, logic and science [except now you're adding an "appeal to authority"/elitist/intellectual" whiff to it] to counter crafty and vicious propaganda and that's just not effective.

What needs to be done, in my opinion, is to study our opponents, learn form them, and use their tactics against them. We're already familiar with their tools: lies and propaganda. We don't need to, nor should we, lie. But using [effective] propaganda and, as important, going on the attack, in order to expose these people seems to me the way to go.

For example, don't highlight how this amendment would make a mess of existing law. Rather, go on the attack and forcefully accuse these people of wanting to bring down America/deliver America to our enemies (heh, do I have a future as a propagandist or what?) by making a mockery of our legal system. Put them in a position where they have to defend giving legal rights to placentas.

That said, it would be great if we could clearly explain how this initiative isn’t about “babies.”

I'll think about it and see if i can come up with anything, but my sense is that you need an experienced propagandist for this job.

At 4:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

indeed, it should be emphasized that such proposals ARE a mockery of American legal system, history and relationship between the constitution and the people. Great ideas.

At 6:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If personhood doesn't begin at fertilization then when would you say it does? At what point or stage of development would you draw the line (declare them entitled to "inalienable rights, equality of justice, and due process of law")?

At 3:43 AM, Blogger ema said...

Anon @ 6:58 AM,

Personhood, as in the legal concept, yes? Once the pregnancy is delivered, of course.


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