Personhood Isn't So Simple

As pointed out in your “Dispatches” section (3/1/12 TPP), the Romney campaign has now joined Gingrich and Santorum in highlighting abortion and contraception as hot-button social issues, perhaps in response to sections of the electorate. Last November voters in Mississippi faced a constitutional amendment that would have declared a fertilized egg to be a legal person (“Voting on Conception as the Legal Start of Life,” New York Times, 10/26/12).

The Oklahoma Senate (February 2012) approved a “personhood” bill that declared life begins at conception. The bill provided embryos and fetuses with “all the rights privileges, and immunities” of other citizens (News Services, 2/16/12). A bill has moved through the Virginia House that declares that the rights of persons apply from the moment sperm and egg unite (Associated Press, 2/16/12). However, the State Senate recently voted to suspend consideration of the personhood bill (“Virginia Lawmakers Backtrack on Conception Bill,” N.Y. Times, 2/24/12). This bill is by no means dead, and could be revived in the next legislative session.

Mississippi voters rejected the “personhood bill” but the bills in Oklahoma and Virginia show partisan support. Tarina Keene of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia noted that “The General Assembly is dangerously close to making Virginia the first state in the country to grant personhood rights to fertilized eggs.”

Roman Catholic bishops and evangelical leaders justify opposing the administration’s recent rule that employees of religiously affiliated institutions must be provided with insurance coverage for birth control, by insisting that, since life begins the instant an egg is fertilized, the use of contraception would be the equivalent of abortion (“Groups Equate Abortion With Some Contraceptives,” N.Y. Times, 2/17/12).

Application of modern biological knowledge reveals unintended complications when religious doctrine and politics collaborate to mandate that personhood is established at the time of conception.

Fertilization of an egg by a sperm produces a zygote which is a transitory stage that rapidly leads to the formation of the “pre-embryo,” a microscopic ball of dividing cells. For natural biological reasons, only about one-third of these pre-embryos achieve implantation.

The name “pre-embryo” is used because after this minute ball of cells attaches to the uterus it then differentiates into the inner cell mass, that will form the future embryo, or into cells that will contribute to the future placenta. Thus fertilization produces two critical inter-dependent structures not merely the embryo, as is apparently assumed by politicians and religious leaders.

Declaring that life and personhood occur concurrently at the moment of fertilization would logically result in endowing both the future placenta and the future embryo with the status of a legal person. This strategy ignores the timetable that scientific study has established for stages of early human development.

Implantation occurs one week after fertilization, and embryo formation occurs during the following week. Importantly, up until the end of the second week of development, this early embryo is capable of splitting and forming twins. Thus personhood, conferred at fertilization, may need to be shared by twin embryos.

The claim by bishops and other religious leaders that the destruction of a fertilized egg by contraceptive means equates to abortion (N.Y. Times, 2/16/12) requires that the “normal” destruction of the majority of “pre-embryos” be theologically reconciled. The implication that “natural” abortion is good but abortion by external means is unacceptable surely offers a religious conundrum. ...

While the personhood anti-abortion bills are viewed as transformative by supporters they are strongly condemned by many doctors and workers in the medical profession who foresee intrusion of criminal law into medical care and warn of jeopardizing women’s reproductive health and even their lives.

Intermingling politics and religion is done in opposition to the intent of the founding fathers. James Madison, fourth president of the United States, and acknowledged “Father of the Constitution,” wrote in 1822 that, “Every new and successful example, therefore, of a perfect separation between the ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance; and I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in showing that religion and government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together.”

John F. Kennedy, our 35th president, demonstrated his commitment to the Constitution by stating in a 1960 speech, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”

Lamenting the current political climate, and pleading for recognition of the proper role of religion in public policy, Rabbi Dennis Ross wrote, “… one’s faith may properly inform an official’s opinion, but an elected leader must not exploit the power of a public office to make that faith the law for everyone.” (Letters, N.Y. Times, 2/28/12).

It is time for both politicians and religious leaders to remedy their biological ignorance, refrain from intermingling faith and science, and stop cynically exploiting the inadequate knowledge of the electorate to advance their personal agendas.

Brian R. Unsworth, Ph.D.
Emeritus Professor of Biological Sciences
Marquette University
Milwaukee, Wis.

Don’t Blame Liberals

I have finished reading my latest issue of TPP and there was one article which, if I still had a gall bladder, would have brought the gall and bile to a roil. That article was written by Christopher Cook and was titled “Workers Left in Dust at Expense of Social Issues” (3/15/12 TPP).

He blames liberals for the mess in this country and by extension with liberals in other countries for the economic mess throughout the developed/industrialized world. To quote “... The Democrats abandoned the working middle class (at the time largely white, fairly conservative on family issues, and heavily-dependent on labor unions) because the party itself became increasingly dominated by liberal professionals who did not make their living making things.

“They were lawyers, academics, media and political consultants and the like. That is, ‘service sector’ professionals. People who made very comfortable incomes leeching off the industrial base, off the working people who actually made real things to sell: autos, appliances, shoes, steel, etc. For these liberal professionals, social issues became more important than the economic issues from which they were increasingly insulated, and which they eventually abandoned through neglect.

“Whereas the Republicans abandoned the working middle class because the party’s economic principles and values - deregulation, free trade, corporate power, etc. - never really supported their economic well-being . ...”

For a good portion of my life I was one of those academics of which Mr. Cook speaks and barely managed to make enough teaching to be on the bottom rung of the middle class, Whereas I did not make my living working in a factory once I finished my education, I had several relatives who were members of the working class.

Although my parents were business owners and although my father was anti-union and my mother was ambivalent about them, I was pro-union except in those cases where the leadership became corrupt, but those were specific cases.

I did not lump all unions under one banner of methodology or organization. I have been on the losing side of an attempt to establish a specific local union, but it did not make me lose hope that people would return to establishing unions.

In fact since — as Mr. Cook points out — we are becoming a service economy (a segment that has always in the past few centuries been a segment that is undervalued and underpaid) it is even more important that those workers organize so they can have collective bargaining rights before the current congress and corporations completely gut those union rights.

I’m disappointed in you, Mr. Cook; not all academics, lawyers and professionals are anti-labor. You are wearing blinkers and seeing only one segment of the group (educated and professional), but you are tarring everyone with the same brush.

Roy Betzer
Hot Springs S.D.

Let Georgism Do It

Jim Van Der Pol may not be aware of it (“Enlarge Loaf with Trickle-Up Economics,” 3/1/12 TPP), but there is an economic theory that would fill his “trickle up” idea quite well. It’s called “Ground Rent” or “Land Value Taxation,” as espoused by Henry George, who declared that access to land is the source of all wealth and power.

Since land (which includes water, minerals, forests, airwaves and other natural resources) is not man-made, it should be considered the property of the community and not monopolized by individuals.

The community creates land value, and those using the land should pay the community for that use with a property tax ON THE LAND ONLY (not the improvements) according to how valuable it is.

Prime downtown land is taxed much higher than suburban housing property or farmland, and EVERYBODY (churches, government buildings, charitable organizations) pays for it. Once the community’s needs are met (police, fire protection, schools, libraries, etc.), surplus monies may be sent to a higher government level. When he first proposed this remedy for social injustice, Henry George became a household word, lecturing extensively to large audiences across the country and overseas. But the rich and powerful were not pleased, and a lot of effort went into silencing him. Indeed, modern economics classes don’t even mention his name.

Today modified versions of Georgist tax theory are being successfully practiced in several cities in Pennsylvania and Australia. I urge everyone to become familiar with George’s work by reading his books, Progress and Poverty, his definitive masterpiece, and Social Problems, which is a little easier to grasp.

Gayle Voeller
Carmichael, Calif.

A Weaker Dollar, Weak Idea

Twice within a month, Dean Baker’s articles in TPP have promoted the idea of government action to devaluate the US dollar for the purpose of making American manufacturing more globally competitive. Let’s first compare the US dollar with that of our number one (if they still are) trading partner and see how Mr. Baker’s 20% figure fits in. In the past, the Canadian dollar has been from 10% to 25% below the US dollar, which is why Americans have always been on guard for “those Canuck nickels and dimes.”

However, more recently, their buck has been pretty much on par with our buck and our trade is quite balanced. Not much wiggle room there. But now, considering the hard facts of US trade, what Dean Baker is probably suggesting is that our dollar should be “adjusted” against the Chinese renminbi, or that China should allow the value of their currency to rise. The problem here is twofold.

In order to prop up our dollar stores, the Chinese have been willing to prop up our dollar, but only in a more or less laissez-faire economic environment.

Any deliberate attempt by the US government to reverse this will positively stick in their craw.

They will see it as a subtle tariff war and simply allow the 99% of Americans to eat the inevitable price increase for the 99% of essentials sold in DengMart. This leads to the second problem.

We are very much beyond the point of no return. Americans are not going back to competitively producing underwear, socks or any other third world product. Even if we wanted to, it would involve a decade of backpedalling just to get started.

That being said, we must ask ourselves, what US working class hero will come out ahead in a 20% currency adjustment? The answer: Perhaps some assembly guy at Boeing. Then again, with the shape unions are in, nah.

In the modern world, energy is everything. The best way for us to keep busy is to get going with a massive government backed renewable energy construction program, tax financed by large corporations and the 1%.

Forget the nickels and dimes.

Ron DiGiovanni
Easton, Pa.

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2012


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