Mississippi's Year Zero

Article excerpt

When did you start being you? You began as a fertilised egg, but would you identify yourself with that single cell? That was the question being asked in Mississippi on 8 November, as voters expressed their views on the bare minimum it takes to be a human being.

The smart money was on Mississippi ushering in legislation that would have granted human rights to every fertilised egg. The likely impact on abortion law was obvious but it would also have been bad news for anyone in the state who wanted to use post-fertilisation means of birth control, such as intrauterine devices and the morning-after pill. Doctors would also have felt an impact: in vitro fertilisation, in which not every developing embryo is given an equal chance of developing into a fully grown human being, would have become problematic.

Personhood USA, a group that rallied support for the bill, quoted science in support of its campaign: " [The zygote], formed by the union of an oocyte and a sperm, is the beginning of a new human being." The quotation was from an embryology textbook. Science, Personhood USA said, had proved "that a living, fully human and unique individual exists at the moment of fertilisation".

This is simply untrue. Whatever a textbook might say, science has never managed to make definitive statements, even about what is alive and what isn't. Scientists can't say when chemistry becomes biology, when biological cells form into something that can be seen as an independendy operating organism, or when that organism, given the right DNA in each of its cells, might reasonably be termed a functioning human being. …