By John A. Lippitt, Ph.D., and Kirtly Parker Jones, M.D., OB/GYN

The Supreme Court’s overturning of the right to an abortion prior to fetal viability has put a spotlight on what it means to be “pro-life.” Right-wing Republicans declare that being “pro-life” means asserting that life begins at conception, i.e., fertilization. Therefore, they say, our laws should declare that a fertilized human egg is a person and should be given all the rights of personhood. If an individual believes, typically based on religious beliefs, that human (sacred) life begins at conception, they have every right to believe that, to lead their life based on that belief, and to try to convince others to live their lives that way. However, they do not have a right to impose that belief on others; that’s one important example of what a right to freedom of religion means.

(Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing.)

A declaration in our laws that life and personhood begin at fertilization has many implications. It means, of course, that anything that prevents a fertilized egg from being born as living, breathing, presumably healthy baby is murder. It would criminalize some forms of contraception. Most forms of contraception primarily either stop ovulation (egg production) or prevent egg fertilization, but they can also reduce the likelihood of successful implantation of a fertilized egg, which could be considered murder. A personhood-at-fertilization law would make any miscarriage subject to a criminal investigation as to its cause. [1] Theoretically, the failure of a pregnant women to take steps to minimize the likelihood of a miscarriage could be criminalized, such as a failure to stop smoking, maintain a healthy weight, control diabetes, or cease use of alcohol and drugs, including some legal drugs.

Understanding the implications of a declaration that personhood begins at fertilization requires understanding the development of a pregnancy. Fertilization occurs in the fallopian tubes and it typically takes 3 – 4 days for the fertilized egg to reach the uterus. It then takes 2 – 6 more days for the fertilized egg to implant itself into the uterine lining where it will grow, assuming all goes well, for the next 38 or so weeks until birth.

Many fertilized eggs have abnormalities in their chromosomes. This means they cannot produce a viable fetus and typically die because they fail to successfully implant in the uterus or result in a miscarriage early in pregnancy. However, under a personhood-at-fertilization law, all deaths of a fertilized egg would be an illegal abortion and a murder.

Some fertilized eggs can get stuck in the fallopian tubes and an ectopic pregnancy results, which is life threatening if the embryo is not removed. But this would be an abortion and murder under a personhood law, unless a specific exception is included in such a law.

Overall, between a third and a half of all fertilized eggs do not implant in the uterus and therefore die. However, under personhood-at-fertilization laws, each such event would potentially be subject to a criminal investigation. This would also be true of any intentional or accidental destruction of a fertilized egg stored at a fertility clinic.

Somewhere between 7 and 9.5 million human eggs get fertilized each year in the U.S. Somewhere between 2.5 and 4.5 million of them don’t successfully implant in the uterus and do not lead to a viable fetus. Under proposed personhood laws, these would be considered abortions and potential murders, although in many cases the woman is not even aware that this has happened.

For medical professionals, pregnancy begins when the fertilized egg has successfully implanted itself in the uterus, roughly a week after fertilization. There are 4.5 to 5.0 million pregnancies in the U.S. each year. Roughly 18% of them are ended through intentional abortions, about 900,000 per year. A similar number, about 20% or 1 million, end through a miscarriage. [2]

If a person were truly pro-life (as opposed to anti-abortion), they would do everything they could to ensure that every pregnancy produced a vibrant, healthy baby. Prenatal and even pre-pregnancy care for women of child bearing age would be a priority. Furthermore, post-partum care for every baby and mother would be a high priority too, as would care and supports for children and their families from infanthood to adulthood.

An examination at the state level reveals that the six states that are most strongly anti-abortion (based on polls that find support for abortion rights is 49% or less) are the states with the worst records for supporting mothers and babies before, during, and after childbirth, despite the claims of at least their politicians to be “pro-life”. Indicators of their lack of support for mothers and babies include: [3]

  • Mississippi: ranks 50th among the states with the worst (i.e., highest) rate of infant mortality and ranks 45th worst on its rate of maternal mortality; it refused to expand Medicaid to cover more low-income families under the Affordable Care Act (aka Obama Care), despite the fact that Medicaid is the source of health insurance coverage for many low-income mothers and their babies
  • Louisiana: ranks 49th worst on infant mortality
  • Alabama: ranks 48th worst on infant mortality, 48th worst on maternal mortality, and refused to expand Medicaid
  • Arkansas: ranks 47th worst on infant mortality and 50th worst on maternal mortality
  • Oklahoma: ranks 46th worst on infant mortality
  • Wyoming: ranks 47th worst on its rate of women without medical insurance and refused to expand Medicaid

Conversely, polls find that in 14 states 70% or more of the population support abortion rights. In these states, support for mothers and babies is strong. All have implemented the Medicaid expansion and nine have enacted paid family and medical leave that includes coverage for when a new baby arrives. Another, less specific measure of support for parents, especially young parents, is the level of the minimum wage. Five of the six anti-abortion states listed above (Arkansas is the exception) have a minimum wage at the lowest level federal law allows, $7.25 per hour. On the other hand, 13 of the 14 states with strong support for abortion rights (New Hampshire is the exception) have minimum wages well above the federal $7.25 level. [4] By improving incomes and economic security, a higher minimum wage improves the well-being and outcomes of children, mothers, and families.

It’s hard to truthfully claim that you’re “pro-life” when you have high infant mortality, high maternal mortality, don’t provide health insurance to low-income mothers and babies, and/or maintain low wages for parents. As former U.S. Representative Barney Frank once quipped, many of these supposedly “pro-life” people seem to believe that “life begins at conception and ends at birth” at least from a public policy perspective.

Being pro-life should mean being pro-child, and also pro-parent and pro-family. Pro-child state and federal policies would support health, food, and nutrition benefits for mothers and children; a living wage for parents; affordable, high quality early childhood education and child care; and so forth. Being pro-life should mean being pro-mother and pro-woman, making contraception readily available, and leaving the decision about terminating a pregnancy to a woman and her doctor. To be truly and morally consistently pro-life, one would also have to be against capital punishment and war. Some people are consistently pro-life but many of those who claim to be “pro-life” are not.

The far-right won a battle in the culture war when they framed their anti-abortion stance as “pro-life” and the pro-abortion people lost when they used “pro-choice.” The pro-abortion folks should have framed their stance as pro-child and pro-woman, instead of pro-choice. But they didn’t. So, here we are today, fighting to take back the language and the law about what it really means to be pro-life.

[1]      Bartlett, J., 5/14/22, “Examining the biology of birth control,” The Boston Globe

[2]      Guttmacher Institute, Sept. 2019, “Induced abortion in the United States,” retrieved from the Internet on 9/16/22 (https://www.guttmacher.org/sites/default/files/factsheet/fb_induced_abortion.pdf)

[3]      Meyerson, H., 8/26/22, “ ‘Pro-life’: America’s most patently absurd misnomer,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/politics/pro-life-americas-most-patently-absurd-misnomer/)

[4]      Banerjee, A., 5/18/22, “Abortion rights are economic rights,” Economic Policy Institute (https://www.epi.org/blog/abortion-rights/)


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