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Should Fertilized Eggs Be Given Constitutional Rights?

Extreme pro-life movement jeopardizes abortion, IVF treatments, contraceptives and stem cell research

Jul. 17, 2013
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Bills bubbling up in the state Legislature would grant new legal rights to fertilized eggs that would trump the health and well-being of Wisconsin women and turn biomedical researchers into criminals.

State Rep. Andre Jacque (R-De Pere) is circulating a draft of a constitutional amendment that would recognize fertilized eggs and embryos as people with inherent rights. The amendment is so broadly written that it could outlaw all abortion—even in cases of rape or incest or life-threatening pregnancies—as well as jeopardize in vitro fertilization and embryonic stem cell research. Common hormonal contraceptives could be banned as well.

Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin Executive Director Tanya Atkinson said that if the amendment is passed, state laws would apply to fertilized eggs and embryos whenever the term “person” is used.

“This is very disturbing,” Atkinson said. “In addition to the abortion restrictions that we’ve seen, this is another piece of legislation, or in this case a constitutional amendment, that makes it harder to get birth control. For individuals or a group that talks about wanting to reduce abortion or get rid of it, this kind of legislation is completely contrary to that.”

Jacque has also introduced a bill that would ban the use of fetal tissue derived from abortion. More than 30 Republican legislators have signed on to it, including Milwaukee-area representatives Joe Sanfelippo (R-West Allis), Rob Hutton (R-Brookfield) and Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield), as well as Republican senators Paul Farrow (R-Pewaukee), Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend) and Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin).

Jacque’s fetal tissue bill lacks a grandfather clause and therefore would criminalize the use of any material that that was ever derived from fetal tissue, said Bryan Renk, executive director of BioForward, a bioscience industry advocacy group.

That provision would turn some academic and private sector researchers into criminals, since fetal tissue resulting from abortion is the original source of many cell lines used in research.

“These include cell lines that have been used in academia and research since the early 1970s and some of them produce influenza vaccines and are used in cancer research, things like that,” Renk said. “It’s really troubling to see that they’re trying to make a felony out of the use of these tissues for researchers that are trying to help improve the human condition.”

Jacque said that fetal tissue from an abortion shouldn’t be used, even if the woman having the abortion has given signed consent and donated the tissue for research.

“I don’t see how the child can give consent,” Jacque said.

Renk said the repeated threats to biomedical research in Wisconsin could drive researchers out of the state to more favorable environments. According to a 2010 study commissioned by BioForward, the industry has generated more than 72,000 private sector and academic jobs in the state and nearly $7 billion in income.

The fetal tissue bill “sends a really bad signal to the businesses and research institutions in the state,” Renk said.


Personhood Controversial Among Pro-Life Groups

Jacque introduced the personhood constitutional amendment in 2011, but it failed to get a committee hearing in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

He began circulating his amendment for cosponsors late last week and he told the Shepherd that five lawmakers already have signed on to the bill.

Jacque said his proposed amendment wouldn’t affect in vitro fertilization, but that it could affect some forms of birth control.

A constitutional amendment requires passage by the state Legislature in two consecutive sessions before being placed on a referendum ballot for state voters.

Jacque’s 2011 amendment was so controversial that only one group had backed it, Pro-Life Wisconsin, which also seeks to ban many common forms of birth control. Pro-Life Wisconsin endorsed Gov. Scott Walker, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and a slew of Republican legislators in recent elections.

The more moderate pro-life group Wisconsin Right to Life lobbied against Jacque’s personhood amendment, as did the Wisconsin Medical Society and the state chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.

Similar personhood efforts have failed in other states and in Congress.

Earlier this year, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) cosponsored the Sanctity of Human Life Act, which would grant constitutional and legal rights to a “one-celled human embryo,” even before it is implanted in the uterus to create a viable pregnancy. The former vice presidential candidate cosponsored the 2011 version as well.

Similar state-level personhood efforts have failed around the country, including in highly conservative Mississippi.

The push for personhood has split the pro-life movement, with only the most extreme members advocating for state constitutional amendments redefining personhood.

The more moderate or pragmatic pro-life advocates seem to realize that the amendments couldn’t withstand legal scrutiny and are unconstitutional.

Pro-life attorneys James Bopp and Richard Coleson wrote a memo discouraging members of the movement from advocating for state personhood amendments because they would be struck down by federal courts. These attorneys fear that those challenges could lead to the U.S. Supreme Court taking up one of the cases and finding that the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution should be extended to women who choose to have an abortion, a seemingly more solid legal basis than the right to privacy affirmed in Roe v. Wade.

Even if Roe v. Wade is overturned, a pre-Roe Wisconsin statute banning abortion remains on the books and would immediately criminalize abortion.

Planned Parenthood’s Atkinson said that Jacque’s proposals, along with the new restrictions placed on abortion providers Walker signed into law and the defunding of Planned Parenthood and other medical services, comprises a new assault on women in a formerly moderate state.

“Wisconsin is a tough place for women right now,” Atkinson said.


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