The push to confer full “personhood” status on every fertilized human egg has been rejected by voters and lawmakers in state after state, including deep-red Mississippi.

But activists are cautiously hopeful that their cause could get a boost from Republicans who are about to assume leadership in Washington.

Georgia Representative Tom Price, who has been tapped by President-elect Donald Trump to run the Department of Health and Human Services, has twice co-sponsored federal legislation that would define fertilized human eggs as legal persons — a move that would outlaw not just abortion, but also potentially birth control pills and other common methods of contraception.


Vice President-elect Mike Pence, then a congressman from Indiana, also co-sponsored that bill, which was introduced in 2005 and 2007, as well as similar legislation in 2011. House Speaker Paul Ryan, who will see his power expand under the Trump administration, co-sponsored the same bill both years too, as well as similar legislation in 2009, 2011, and 2013.

Personhood activists, who generally oppose abortion even in the case of rape and incest, have several policy changes in mind as the new administration takes office.

As health secretary, for instance, Price could make it easier for employers or insurance plans to stop covering abortion and birth control. He could curtail federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells and contraception. And he, Pence, and Ryan could use their high-profile positions to raise awareness of the personhood movement.

Promoting ‘fetal tax credits’

In the meantime, personhood activists are pushing ahead with aggressive moves in a number of states. One novel tactic: introducing bills to give “fetal tax credits” — similar to the child tax credit — to pregnant women.

“There are just so many ways that personhood principles can be brought to bear on public policy,” said Dr. Patrick Johnston, a family doctor and pediatrician who’s also director of Personhood Ohio, an affiliate of the national advocacy group Personhood Alliance.

Johnston is leading a signature drive to get a constitutional amendment to assign personhood status to fertilized eggs on the 2018 ballot in Ohio. A similar effort is in motion in Florida, and is expected to start soon in Mississippi. And lawmakers plan to soon introduce personhood bills in Wisconsin, Alabama, South Carolina, and Mississippi.

They’re facing an uphill battle: Voters have rejected similar ballot measures everywhere they’ve been tried. Statehouses, too, have been roadblocks: Fetal personhood legislation introduced in at least nine states this year failed to advance, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights research group.

A Gallup poll earlier this year found that 4 out of 5 Americans don’t want to see abortion banned in all circumstances.

Even some abortion opponents hesitate to endorse personhood measures because they have such broad implications. They would effectively outlaw any form of contraception other than barrier methods — including the pill, the hormonal patch, and IUDs. Such birth control methods, which have been proven to be the most effective ways of preventing unplanned pregnancies, may sometimes work by preventing a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus. (Most medical doctors consider pregnancy to begin at implantation, not fertilization.)

Personhood measures could also hamper in vitro fertility treatments, by disrupting the common practice of creating multiple embryos and implanting only the one or two most likely to be viable. The embryos that aren’t used are sometimes destroyed.

“There are just so many ways that personhood principles can be brought to bear on public policy.”

Dr. Patrick Johnston, director, Personhood Ohio

Yet another implication of personhood laws was on display this week in Louisiana, which has a unique law giving fertilized eggs some legal rights.

Two attorneys filed a headline-grabbing lawsuit in the state on behalf of two fertilized eggs created years ago by the actress Sofia Vergara and her former fiance, Nick Loeb. The suit accuses Vergara of denying the frozen embryos a chance to mature (and eventually be born) and demands that Loeb get custody of them.

One of the attorneys who filed the suit, Catherine Glenn Foster, has a record of legal advocacy for the anti-abortion cause. Personhood advocates told STAT they were not aware of any formal involvement by Foster in their movement, but one activist noted that Foster attended a conference earlier this year sponsored by a Cleveland anti-abortion group that works closely with the Personhood Alliance. (Foster didn’t return requests for comment.)

Building a legal framework for personhood

While they’ve failed to get full personhood bills passed, activists have made some progress pushing in that direction. At least 38 states have passed fetal homicide laws, which make punishments more severe for perpetrators who kill a pregnant woman, according to a count last year from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Activists see such bills as an important step in laying out a legal framework that could help them pave the way for fetal personhood in the future.

Fetal tax credits would be another such step: They would allow pregnant women to claim tax write-offs for their unborn babies. Activists are working with legislators to craft such a bill in Mississippi, and have a goal of introducing it by mid-February, according to Les Riley, a personhood activist in Mississippi. Activists have also presented the idea to anti-abortion advocates in Iowa.

“It seems to us that that would be a personhood-affirming way to support women and to support families to keep their children, and at the same time to recognize the personhood of the child before birth,” said Gualberto Garcia Jones, national policy director of the Personhood Alliance. “It seems like such a commonsense thing that might even get bipartisan support.”

As health secretary, Price would not be able to unilaterally outlaw abortion or assign personhood to a fetus. But there are plenty of ways he could indirectly advance some of the policies that naturally flow from the personhood movement.

Price is expected to play a key role in executing Trump’s plan to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, which mandates that health plans cover approved forms of birth control with no copay for most insured women. And Obamacare wouldn’t even need to be repealed for that perk to go away; Price could eliminate it with a regulatory maneuver.

Such a change would be “a personhood victory,” said Rebecca Kiessling, a Michigan attorney and president of Save the 1, an affiliate of the Personhood Alliance.

Kiessling also wants to see Price change the interpretation of a federal amendment so that state Medicaid programs would not be mandated to cover abortions in cases of rape or incest, or to save the life of the mother. That would reverse a rule change made under former President Bill Clinton’s administration.

Jones, of the Personhood Alliance, wants to see Price take a broader view of a different federal amendment that protects health insurance plans that object to covering abortion. Essentially, Jones wants to see Price give religious employers, as well as insurers, the right to eliminate abortion coverage from the health plans they offer their workers.

Price’s congressional office and Trump’s transition team did not respond to requests for comment.

Disdaining ‘incremental’ abortion limits

The personhood movement hasn’t been embraced by the biggest anti-abortion groups, which worry its unpopularity could jeopardize their movement as a whole. (Asked about personhood this week, for instance, Americans United for Life told STAT it doesn’t focus on that topic.)

Giving legal status to a fertilized egg or a fetus is “seen as extreme even within the anti-abortion community,” said Dr. Diane Horvath-Cosper, an OB-GYN and an advocacy fellow for Physicians for Reproductive Health.

Instead, the mainstream anti-abortion movement has scored victories in recent years with state laws that limit access by shutting down clinics or imposing waiting periods before women can terminate a pregnancy. “What they’ve done successfully is fight where they can win,” said Michele Goodwin, a reproductive health law scholar at the University of California, Irvine.

Such approaches are often denounced by personhood activists as insufficient. They even disdain bills as hardline as the legislation passed this week by lawmakers in Ohio; it would prohibit abortion if a physician detects a heartbeat, which is usually possible about six weeks after conception — before many women even know they are pregnant.

“Those are what we call incremental legislation, and I would consider them to be morally compromised,” Jones said.

Jones said he fears Price — despite his past advocacy for personhood — will adopt this incremental approach and seek to chip away at abortion rather than shoot for sweeping bans. He pointed to the fact that the personhood bills co-sponsored by Republican leaders didn’t get hearings despite being introduced year after year.

“I think [Price is] a pragmatic pro-lifer,” he said. “I think he’s willing to bend and so I don’t expect him to push forcefully the personhood agenda.”

But even that prospect scares some reproductive rights activists, who say incremental steps may be more palatable to voters and lawmakers — but still impose real harm on women.

“When we see people support personhood or abortion bans, it makes all of the other restrictions look so much more moderate,” said Elizabeth Nash, a state policy analyst at the Guttmacher Institute, “when in fact they are real threats to humanity and dignity, too.”

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  • So failed in vitro fertilization is manslaughter? In Ohio they are or have passed a law that bans abortions past 6 weeks, only thing is you have to wait at least 6 weeks to qualify for an abortion because otherwise it will be so small that it could be missed. Banning abortions beyond six weeks is banning abortion.
    The ethical question really is, should a woman who does not love a man be forced to be one with him in blood for all eternity? (or for the duration of life on earth?), say its a case of a very abusive relationship, she will have to deal with her abuser all her life, say its the case of forced sex or rape? Incest? The decision to join a person in evolution, for all time, thats a very personal and hard decision. Its not always a case of being irresponsible, it often a case of being uneducated, of not knowing how easy it is to get pregnant. This is a very hard decision for a female to make it is never without serious amounts of stress and consideration, especially when we are told we are murderers and mistreated by anyone who knows. People who point out that adoption is an option, well, I personally lack trust in anyone, there is so much sexual abuse, I myself have been a victim of I would find it hard to leave a part of myself in someon elses hands, even in the rare cases of open adoption, you dont know what goes on behind closed doors, it is very difficult emotionally for anyone to handle, pregnancy and giving birth is also a very hard an traumatic thing. If you have never been pregnant, male or female you should abstain from commenting on this issue, this is something I know personally and have lost many years of sleep over.

    We don’t want to go back to women overdosing on suppliments trying to forces a natural abortion, causing their babies to be deformed, or deadly coat hanger abortions, or worse yet stressed out not wanting or ready to be mothers, killing their new born babies and young children.

    People do not know that abortion is limited to the first trimester, except in cases where the mothers life is at risk. There is alot gruesome of misinformation out there, but those late term abortion pictures are the illegal operations that will pop up under laws that restrict early hospital d and c abortions.

    There was a satire that showed a picture of a new born baby and it said “Here is a new born baby. Five minutes ago Republicans cared about it.”

    If you care about babies, then lets makes sure every new mother has money for formula and diapers.

    • Who said “failed in vitro is manslaughter”. Me thinks thou doth protest too much… We should make fornication and adultery illegal to reduce the sexual activity between foolish and immature people not ready to commit to a life together. New mother’s should get money from their husbands. None of the situations you spin justify the killing of an innocent person.

  • Clearing – Trump is trying to create his own altered reality…

    But in this case – anyone doubting a women who is pregnant – is not really a carrying a human being – until it’s conveniently developed to a certain point
    is altering reality. Again the word is convenience and not science.

    • The “Dark Ages” of Trump is here, allowing children to die at the hands of their mothers and fathers…What has this world become?

  • A fertilized egg is a human being at the one-cell stage. When the cell divides, it becomes a fertilized cell at the two-cell stage and so on. At some point,the brain stem begins to develop, then the heart, the skeleton, the muscles, and other organs.

    Since the sequence from fertilization to birth generally takes 40 weeks, it seems absurd to consider a fertilized egg as a human being.

    • But the Creator is not absurd. And He said “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you…” And the prophet said to Him: “…Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed”. So Personhood is not dependent upon physical substance, which is not absurd at all, since people are obviously body, & soul, and not merely body alone.

    • Also, fertilization occurs prior to cell division. But you are correct that you have a distinct human being even as a single cell. And that unique person can be identified physically by their unique DNA. (Which is at least one Y chromosome different than his mother’s in about 50% of all cases).

  • Anyone who thinks that the pill is a method of killing a fertilized egg is crazy. The pill prevents the UNFERTILIZED egg from every coming out. Thus, the egg can never get fertilized to begin with. Plus, many women take hormonal birth control as a way to prevent hormones from going crazy and making them have the symptoms of pregnancy or menopause when they are not pregnant, in addition to many having other conditions such as seizures caused by raging hormones. Are you suggesting that anyone who does not want to have these should get a complete hysterectomy in their TWENTIES in order to prevent this?

    • AS: OCP act three ways. One, they prevent ovulation — but not always. Two, they also alter cervical mucus to make a woman less fertile. Three, they alter the endometrium to make it hostile to implantation, so when a woman taking OCP conceives, the embryo is effectively miscarried, or aborted.

      Also, human beings are beautifully designed. Hormones don’t just go crazy, and they don’t rage. 🙂 Learn more about hormones and fertility at

  • Those among us, (like Gualberto Garcia Jones) who draw the line for Personhood at fertilization are certain never to kill an innocent person by abortion. Those who draw that line elsewhere will have to explain themselves to God if they are wrong. This is a serious matter. Consider your choice carefully.

    • So, you advocate the Western equivalent of Sharia Law? From a purely OB clinical perspective, fully HALF of fertilized ova fail to attach and begin the gestation process. That works out to about 4 million fetal “people” per year just in the US. Surely, all of those “deaths” deserve criminal grand jury investigations, no?

      Spare us your piety.

    • Doug,

      I just don’t share your adolescent need for an angry anthropomorphic Imaginary Friend.

      And, anyone who advocates, even implicitly, that the secular law should be imposed on women’s reproductive rights is simply advocating for an unconstitutional theocracy.

    • I’ll take my chances with your God if that’s the price of assuring that women, including my daughter and daughter-in-law, retain control over their reproductive rights.

      Three things seem to me to be critical to personhood: our ability to engage emotionally and intellectually with the world; our autonomy; and the investment others have in us. I suspect many would add the fact that our DNA is human as a fourth component, but I doubt it is one that will stand for another century – we will see our own creations that have no DNA at all, ore significantly altered DNA, assume person-like characteristics in time.

      At any rate, elevating a fertilized egg to person-hood before it develops any of the first three is a stretch too far. Doing so at the expense of every woman who has every become pregnant with no desire to bear a child – whether through failure of contraception, rape or incest, is unconscionable.

    • so let god judge them and let them make their own choice.

      Judge not, that ye be not judged.

      For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.

    • Bobby: A baby dying before she is born is different than someone killing her. And I believe that all of those babies who die before birth are with the Living God, and their company is one of the reasons He’s too busy to deal the final Judgment to murderers like you. But don’t worry… He’ll get to you.

    • Bobby: I am not implying “implicitly” that the secular law should be imposed against murder. I’m insisting upon it explicitly.

    • Steve Demuth: Your desire to kill your own grandchildren is off putting to say the least. And there are many disabled people who do not meet your three bogus criteria for Personhood. Would you have them killed as well? God determines Personhood, and since you do not know about Him, you are not qualified to speak to the issue. Take your chances indeed…

    • Why do you turn off the “reply” Bobby? Are you scared to debate an adult who is obviously your intellectual and spiritual superior? You should get over that fear. You might just learn and grow if you are not afraid to learn from those wiser than you are.

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