THE BLOG
11/07/2012 01:40 pm ET Updated Jan 07, 2013

Dodging the Election of a 'Personhood President'

First, hats off to reproductive rights supporters who won last night!

If we had elected a "Personhood President," there would be cause for great concern. While personhood and abortion were hot issues during the campaign, one aspect related to both that didn't seem to come up like it could have is the discussion of the definitive answer to the question, "When does human life begin?"

Anti-abortion factions are stuck on "the moment of conception" as the answer. But as Tamara Mann writes in her HuffPost piece, "Heartbeat: My Involuntary Miscarriage and 'Voluntary Abortion' in Ohio":

There is little consensus among biologists, doctors and ethicists on when life begins. The language here can be tricky. There all sorts of things they agree are alive -- from cells, to animals, to people. But that is not what they mean when they discuss life in utero. In this case, they mean life as something endowed with humanness, and worthy of rights...

It is not just about whether something is "alive," but at what point it is human life, or the term that has now been used in many of the legislative attempts to prevent abortions -- personhood.

As Mann points out:

... the literature reveals a litany ... of standards for determining personhood: conception (day 1), implantation (day 6-7), detectable heartbeat (approximately week 6), detectable brain activity (approximately week 8), quickening (when the mother can feel the fetus moving), development of the cerebral cortex (at the end of the first trimester), viability outside the mother's body (now as early as 24 weeks with medical support), when the head is visible during labor, and when the baby takes its first breath. Smart, thoughtful people genuinely disagree.

And really smart people in the highest court in the land have not come to the answer. Even as far back as 1973, the Supreme Court indicated that people trained in "respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus" and the Court itself "could not resolve the question of when life begins."

Where do many people go for the answer to this question? To their church. When her doctor told her fetus was not not compatible with life" -- that it would not "survive the pregnancy" and that it should be removed, this is what Ms. Mann did.

The fetus had a heartbeat, and she was not sure what to do, and went to a rabbi for counsel. She learned that "In Judaism, the dominant metaphor for life is not the heartbeat -- it is the breath. In Genesis 2:7, God breathes life into man: 'Then the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man become a living soul.' Even that final word, soul, nefesh, can be translated as breath."

Jewish law errs on the side of the mother's health, and does not see a fetus as "a life." As Jodi Jacobson, editor-in-chief of RH Reality Check describes it, Jewish law "does not recognize an egg, embryo, or fetus as a person or full human being, but rather 'part and parcel of the pregnant women's body,' the rights of which are subjugated to the health and well-being of the mother until birth."

The Vatican disagrees, and see the fertilized egg as a "person" with full rights under the law. The United Methodist Church -- it sees it differently and "recognizes the primacy of the rights and health of women." And "Islamic scholars, like Jewish scholars, have debated the issues of 'ensoulment' and personhood, and continue to do so with no over-riding consensus."

There is clearly not one answer to the question of personhood. The problem is the "Moment of Conceptionists" do not accept this, and feel so right about their religious position they want all of us to follow it.

As we head into the next four years, expect this contingent to continue to attempt to make personhood, not Roe v Wade, the law of the land. Expect them to try and chip away at this law any way they can.

However, we will have a president at the helm who can make sure the highest Court continues to see the answer to "when life begins" for what it is -- a matter of personal belief, and the right to privacy to make personal choices based on those beliefs.

Laura Carroll is the author of The Baby Matrix: Why Freeing Our Minds From Outmoded Thinking About Parenthood & Reproduction Will Create a Better World.