Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before

18 03 2013

Oh that Rand Paul, champion of liberty! Look how he’s standing up for freedom now:

“The Life at Conception Act legislatively declares what most Americans believe and what science has long known – that human life begins at the moment of conception, and therefore is entitled to legal protection from that point forward,” Paul said in a statement. “ The right to life is guaranteed to all Americans in the Declaration of Independence and ensuring this is upheld is the Constitutional duty of all Members of Congress.”

Ahh, conceptional personhood: An idea utterly lacking in biological sense.

Charlie Pierce has the right idea regarding the Paul family: His Five Minute Rule  states that, for five minutes, both the son and the father, Crazy Uncle Liberty (!), make perfect sense on many issues. At the 5:00:01 mark, however, the trolley inevitably departs the tracks.

As Pierce notes, with this we are at the 5:00: 07 mark: The trolley has jumped the tracks, tipped over on its side, and is skidding down the boulevard.

I believe I have covered this before, but let’s go over this again, shall we?

There is no such thing as the “moment of conception”.

As Moore and Persaud note in the 6th edition of The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology:

Fertilization is a complex series of “coordinated molecular events (see Acosta, 1994 for details) that begins with the contact between the sperm and a oocyte and ends with the intermingling of maternal and paternal chromosomes at metaphase of the first mitotic division of the zygote, a unicellular embryo. Defects at any stage in the sequence of these events might cause the zygote to die (Asch et al, 1995). . . . The fertilization process takes about 24 hours. [p. 34, emph added]

“Process”, Senator Paul, not “moment”. Shall we break it down even further?

  • Passage of sperm through corona radiata surrounding the the zona pellucida of an oocyte.
  • Penetration of the zona pellucida surrounding the oocyte
  • Fusion of plasma membranes of the oocyte and sperm
  • Completion of the second meiotic division of oocyte and formation of female pronucleus
  • Formation of male pronucleus
  • Membranes of pronuclei break down, the chromosomes condense and become arranged for a mitotic cell division—the first cleavage division [pp. 34-36]

There are many more details involved in those stages, but the highlights ought to be enough.

At this point, the zygote is still in the ampulla [middle portion] of the fallopian tube, ambling its way toward the uterus. Beginning around 30 hours post-fertilization, it undergoes a series of mitotic or cleavage divisions, in which the internal cells (blastomeres) divide and become successively smaller. “After the nine-cell stage, the blastomeres change their shape and tightly align themselves against each other to form a compact ball of cells. . . . When there are 12 to 14 blastomeres, the developing human is called a morula (L. morus, mulberry).”  The morula forms about 3 days post-fert, and enters the uterus 3-4 days post-fert. [p. 41]

Okay, 4 days in and the mulberry is still wandering around, unattached, developing away. A fluid filled space called the blastocyst cavity or blastocoel forms, which separates the blastomeres into two parts:

  • a thin outer cell layer called the trophoblast, which gives rise to the embryonic part of the placenta
  • a group of centrally located blastomeres known as the inner cell mass, which gives rise to the embryo [p. 41]

At this point the berry becomes a blastocyst. (FYI: If you are an embryonic stem cell researcher, this is when you’d harvest the inner cell mass in order to cultivate stem cell lines. The blastocyst would, of course, be destroyed in the process.)

The blastocyst continues to float around in “uterine secretions” for a couple of days as “the zona pellucida gradually degenerates and disappears”. [p. 41] With the dissolution of the zona pellucida, the blastocyst is free to bulk up on those tasty secretions, until around day 6 post-fert, when it attaches itself to the endometrial epithelium.

All hell breaks loose now, as the trohoblast differentiates itself and its outer layer, the syncytiotrophoblast, insinuates itself into the endometrial epithelium and into the connective tissue, or stroma. “The highly invasive syncytiotrophoblast expands quickly adjacent to the inner cell mass, the area known as the embryonic pole. The syncytiotrophoblast produces enzymes that erode the maternal tissues, enabling the blastocyst to burrow into the endometrium.” [p. 42]

Although it takes another week for the embryo to implant itself fully into the endometrium and stroma—which further details I will spare you—this is the stage at which one could say a pregnancy begins.

Got it? One day for the process of fertilization, 6 days for sufficient development to begin a pregnancy, for a grand total of 7 days or one week.

Oh, and one more thing: Of all the zygote-morula-blastocysts formed, 25 percent wash out before implantation, and another 35-55 percent miscarry before birth. Only 20-40 percent of those berries results in a baby.

Anyway, if I wanted to be kind to the momentary conceptional folks, I could say that “conception” is achieved after 24 hours; if I wanted to be strict, I could say 7 days, and if I wanted to be a real bitch, I could argue that not until 14 days has the embryo done anything worth considering a “conception”. Even granting a kindness, it’s clear that the moment is, at its shortest, a day.

Why does this matter? After all, for many people who are pro-life, the issue is less the biology than the morality; that the conceptus takes awhile to get itself together does not obviate the fact that the process begins—that human life begins—when the sperm drills itself into the egg. The biology matters only because it is a trigger for something more, not in and of itself.

This, of course, is how you get bullshit proposals like personhood bills and amendments: by treating biology as a chit in the culture war rather than a reality on its own terms.

Human development is an amazing, complicated, and fraught process, one which does not comport itself easily to our moral preconceptions (sorry) about it. By all means, make a moral argument, but don’t pretend that biology tucks up neatly into it.

Senator Paul is free to believe all he wants “that human life begins at the moment of conception, and therefore is entitled to legal protection from that point forward”, but I am also free to point out it is a belief untethered to biological reality.

That trolley done run into nonsense.

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American idiot, part deux, drei, quatro. . .

17 02 2012

Delegate Marshall, meet Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA).

Representative Issa put together the following panel of experts  for “Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?”

photo via Planned Parenthood Action Fund

Notice anything about this panel? Uh-huh.

The one woman who was invited (by Democrats) to testify, third-year law student at Georgetown Susan Fluke, was blocked from doing so by Issa.

Democrats Elijah Cummings (MD), Eleanor Holmes Norton (DC), and Carolyn Maloney (NY) responded by walking out.

Issa offered his own response to the criticism of the all-male panel by Twittering a photo of Martin Luther King and noting We hear from religious leaders whose positions might not be popular, like MLK’s was not so long ago.

Yes, the anti-birth control men on this panel are exactly like Martin Luther King.

Oh, and should we talk about Foster Friess, the genius moneypot behind Rick Santorum’s candidacy? Y’know, the guy who joked (?) to Andrea Mitchell that On this contraceptive thing, my gosh, it’s so inexpensive. You know, back in my days, they used Bayer Aspirin for contraceptives. The gals put it between their knees and it wasn’t that costly* ?

Okay, let’s not.

Finally, the reproductive specialists in the Virginia House of Delegates have been joined by the embyrologists in the Oklahoma Senate, which just passed its own personhood bill.

Unfuckingbelievable—in no small part because it is all too fuckingbelievable.

Anyway, I give the last word on bad laws to Dahlia Lithwick at Slate, who hammers (surprise!) Virginia’s new ultrasound-before-abortion law, one which will require most women to have a trans-vaginal ultrasound:

. . . Since a proposed amendment to the bill—a provision that would have had the patient consent to this bodily intrusion or allowed the physician to opt not to do the vaginal ultrasound—failed on 64-34 vote, the law provides that women seeking an abortion in Virginia will be forcibly penetrated for no medical reason. I am not the first person to note that under any other set of facts, that would constitute rape under state law.

What’s more, a provision of the law that has received almost no media attention would ensure that a certification by the doctor that the patient either did or didn’t “avail herself of the opportunity” to view the ultrasound or listen to the fetal heartbeat will go into the woman’s medical record. Whether she wants it there or not. I guess they were all out of scarlet letters in Richmond.

. . .

Evidently the right of conscience for doctors who oppose abortion are a matter of grave national concern. The ethical and professional obligations of physicians who would merely like to perform their jobs without physically violating their own patients are, however, immaterial. Don’t even bother asking whether this law would have passed had it involved physically penetrating a man instead of a woman without consent. Next month the U.S. Supreme Court will hear argument about the obscene government overreach that is the individual mandate in President Obama’s health care law. Yet physical intrusion by government into the vagina of a pregnant woman is so urgently needed that the woman herself should be forced to pay for the privilege.

. . .

Of course, the bill is unconstitutional. The whole point of the new abortion bans is to force the Supreme Court to reverse Roe v. Wade. It’s unconstitutional to place an “undue burden” on a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy, although it’s anyone’s guess what, precisely, that means. One would be inclined to suspect, however, that unwanted penetration with a medical device violates either the undue burden test or the right to bodily autonomy. But that’s the other catch in this bill. Proponents seem to be of the view that once a woman has allowed a man to penetrate her body once, her right to bodily autonomy has ended.

During the floor debate on Tuesday, Del. C. Todd Gilbert announced that “in the vast majority of these cases, these [abortions] are matters of lifestyle convenience.” (He has since apologized.) Virginia Democrat Del. David Englin, who opposes the bill, has said Gilbert’s statement “is in line with previous Republican comments on the issue,” recalling one conversation with a GOP lawmaker who told him that women had already made the decision to be “vaginally penetrated when they got pregnant.” (I confirmed with Englin that this quote was accurate.)*

A-yup. As Lithwick noted, Today was not a good day in the War on Women.

_____

*I actually heard this for the first time when I was 16 or 17 and one of the women at the NOW meeting I attended joked that this was the birth control advice she had been given. She lay down on the couch and demonstrated how it was supposed to work; the visual made all the difference.)

(Photo h/t Melissa McEwan, Shakesville; Issa Tweet h/t Alex Seitz-Wald, ThinkProgress; and one, too, for Emily Hauser, just because.) (Update: and dmf! dmf, who commented on the OK bill yesterday.)





American idiot

16 02 2012

This just passed the Virginia House of Delegates by a vote of 66-32:

HOUSE BILL NO. 1 Offered January 11, 2012Prefiled November 21, 2011A BILL to construe the word “person” under Virginia law, including but not limited to § 8.01-50 of the Code of Virginia, to include unborn children.

———-Patrons– Marshall, R.G. and Cline; Senators: Colgan and Garrett———-Referred to Committee for Courts of Justice———-Be it enacted by the General Assembly of Virginia:

1.  § 1. The life of each human being begins at conception.

§ 2. Unborn children have protectable interests in life, health, and well-being.

§ 3. The natural parents of unborn children have protectable interests in the life, health, and well-being of their unborn child.

§ 4. The laws of this Commonwealth shall be interpreted and construed to acknowledge on behalf of the unborn child at every stage of development all the rights, privileges, and immunities available to other persons, citizens, and residents of this Commonwealth, subject only to the Constitution of the United States and decisional interpretations thereof by the United States Supreme Court and specific provisions to the contrary in the statutes and constitution of this Commonwealth.

§ 5. As used in this section, the term “unborn children” or “unborn child” shall include any unborn child or children or the offspring of human beings from the moment of conception until birth at every stage of biological development.

§ 6. Nothing in this section shall be interpreted as creating a cause of action against a woman for indirectly harming her unborn child by failing to properly care for herself or by failing to follow any particular program of prenatal care.

§ 7. Nothing in this section shall be interpreted as affecting lawful assisted conception.

§ 8. Nothing in this section shall be interpreted as affecting lawful contraception.

That’s right: the proposed amendment protecting contraception was stripped out of the final bill.

As for “affecting lawful assisted conception”, does Delegate Robert G. Marshall know that the process of culturing, testing, freezing, and thawing embryos carries the non-negligible risk of embryo death? Or that this bill would require those who created the embryos in vitro either to transfer said embryos to a willing woman or to keep them in a deep freeze forever?

Does he know that as of 2009 Virginia contained 12 fertility clinics, which performed over 2000 cycles using fresh non-donor eggs? Is he aware that many, many more than 2000 fertilized eggs were transferred which never took? Is he aware that during these IVF cycles that many eggs were fertilized that never developed beyond a few cleavage stages—that is, that these eggs died in the dish?

Maybe he does, and he just doesn’t care.

But no, let’s not give him the benefit of the doubt—especially since he couldn’t be bothered to agree to the contraception-protection amendment—and let’s denounce his double-idiocy. Why double?

1. He does not understand conception.

To begin with, fertilization is a process, not a single event. The zygote is not formed until the last stage of fertilization, that is, after the sperm has penetrated into the ooplasm it takes some time before the 23 pairs of chromosomes are sorted and arranged. Furthermore, the early pregnancy factor protein—the presence of which in the first 10 days after fertilization indicates a pregnancy—is not secreted into the woman’s bloodstream until 24-48 hours post-fertilization.

And of course, pregnancy is not considered to have begun until 6 days or so post-fertilization, when the blastocyst attaches itself to the endometrium epithelium of the uterine wall.

Given that neither Marshall nor any of the rest of the 65 delegates could be bothered even to define what is “conception”—is it that magic moment when a single sperm pushes its way through the zona pellucida surrounded the ooplasm? after the formation of the two pronuclei? the fusion of said pronuclei?—-it’s easy to conclude they don’t give a damn about biological reality.

Which matters because it is the biological reality that 60-80 percent of all fertilized eggs will never result in a live birth, which in turn would indicate that “nature” or “biology” doesn’t give a damn about Marshall’s definition of personhood.

2. This biological reality also matters because these majority of failed fertilizations could potential open a woman up to legal liability.

Yes, the bill states that “Nothing in this section shall be interpreted as creating a cause of action against a woman for indirectly harming her unborn child by failing to properly care for herself or by failing to follow any particular program of prenatal care” —but it doesn’t prevent such creation, either. In other words, the legislators, in attempting to get around the legal reality that it would be impossible to investigate every single instance of failed fertilization, nonetheless leave open the possibility (via § 4) that a woman could be held liable.

Admittedly, I could be reaching here, but it does seem as if sections 4 and 6 are in potential conflict with one another, and it is by no means certain how a court would resolve such a conflict.

More to the point, this is a piece of bullshit boilerplate designed both to get the state off the hook for not providing adequate prenatal care to poor and uninsured women and to reinforce the notion that women aren’t responsible enough to make decisions about their own health.

And, of course, this bill leaves the status of in vitro-created zygotes in limbo: what happens if they don’t develop? Could clinicians be held liable?

Who knows. Answers to these questions would require some recognition of the messiness and complexity of human life, something which these reality-challenged delegates are clearly unable to do.

The bill now goes to the Senate.