Betty MacDonald became a best-selling author in 1945 with her book, The Egg and I, the story of a young wife and her husband trying to run a small chicken farm on the Olympic Peninsula in the Northwest. She sold the movie rights for $100,000 plus a percentage of profits from a film released in 1947 starring Claudette Colbert as MacDonald and Fred MacMurray as her husband. The film included a couple of simple farm folk, Ma and Pa Kettle, played by Marjorie Main (who got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress) and Percy Kilbride. The movie led to a series of spinoff Ma and Pa Kettle movies that folks with plenty of grey in their hair (whether they let it show or not) will remember.
The book and the movie left unanswered a fundamental biological question. When we eat a fertilized egg, are we eating a chicken? We’ve checked with some chicken experts who say the answer is “no.” And fertilized eggs are not more nutritious than unfertilized ones.
Today, we have a new “Egg and I” story being written at the Missouri Capitol. There’s nothing humorous or rustic about it. It’s more serious because we’re talking about people, not chickens. The fundamental biological, philosophical, and religious question of when an egg becomes a creature is at the heart of THIS “Egg and I” argument.
In the last few weeks of this legislative session, a lot of ink is being spread upon printed pages and words were spread upon the airwaves about a proposed constitutional amendment saying a person is created as soon as the sperm hits the egg. The state law already declares that life begins at conception but that’s not good enough for the pro-birth interests who are such a big constituency of the majority party. Representative Mike Moon’s House Resolution will make it to the Senate but the Senate will have to go far out of its way to schedule a committee hearing, send the resolution to the floor for debate and then vote on it in the last five days of the session. The Senate is not likely to risk losing a chance to vote on any number of things by taking up this bill. Democrats are guaranteed to fire up the filibuster machine if it ever makes it to the floor.
So why is there so much noise about an issue that is unlikely to be passed? Because it is important for the majority party to send a message in a campaign year that it’s loyal to the cause. And, if nothing else, that’s what’s going on here. The House has been in session since early January and only now has something seemingly this important had a committee hearing and gotten a committee vote and gotten to the floor for debate.
But as the session winds down and as the national picture for the majority party remains problematic, it’s important that the voting blocs supporting the party be kept engaged and reminded of who their friends are at the state level. Doing things to ease or eliminate the effects of possible negative coat tails from national November elections can’t be overlooked. The super-majority could be at stake in these elections. The steamroller will be harder to operate if the super-majority disappears. And the national scramble (notice how cleverly we get back to the “egg” theme) raises the possibility that voters will reverse parties in some legislative districts.
House Joint Resolution 98 is a good flag to hoist before the session ends.
The resolution says that “all persons, including unborn human children at every stage of biological development, have a natural right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and the enjoyment of the gains of their own industry.” It pledges the state to protect such life from deprivation by the state or private action to the extent permitted by the federal constitution.”
But the next section of the proposed amendment seems on plain reading to be somewhat curious. “Nothing in this constitution secures or protects a right to abortion…The people retain the right through their elected state representatives and state senators to enact, amend, or repeal statutes regarding abortion including, but not limited to, circumstances of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest or if necessary to save the life of the mother.” Opponents say the legislation is clearly unconstitutional and will be immediately challenged if it becomes part of the state constitution.
The first committee that recommended legislative passage of this proposal eliminated the last few words to would allow abortions in the cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother. Representative Rick Brattin did that because “all life is life regardless of how it was conceived.” And Representative Tila Hubrecht she tells people who were conceived through rape, “There’s a reason for their life…Sometimes bad things happen…but sometimes God can give us a silver lining through the birth of a child.” Minority party member Stacey Newman, not a fan of the idea to begin with, says the change makes the proposal “extremely punitive….placing many women in danger.”
Moon claims his proposal wouldn’t end abortions but will create the basis for future anti-abortion laws. The other side says there’s no doubt about what he plans to do—stop abortions.
At least two states’ voters have rejected “personhood” proposals. The judicial record is small but Oklahoma’s Supreme Court has thrown out “personhood” as an illegal ban on abortion.
But in an election year, on issues such as this, it’s the thought that counts. Majority lawmakers want to make sure important constituencies know they are thinking of them, a lot, even if the chief purpose of recent actions is to only look like something is being done.
The proposal has once again set us off in search of a definition. This time it’s “person.”
Although the word “person” is often found in our state statutes, there is no legal definition in Missouri law of what a “person’ is. It appears this proposal could back into such a definition, however. A person would be a fertilized human egg. Gender, unknown. Eye color, unknown. Fingerprints, none. Number of hands, unknown. Number of feet, unknown. Heartbeat, unknown.
Egg equals person if this idea becomes part of the State Constitution.
We’ve checked some national legal directories for a definition of “person.” West’s Encyclopedia of American Law says the definition is, “In general usage, a human being.” But is says statutes can define the entity as “firms, labor organizations, partnerships, associations, corporations, legal representatives, trustees, trustees in bankruptcy, or receivers.” Foreign governments that can file lawsuits in this country are “persons” in certain circumstances. The citation from West does not mention “egg.”
There appears in legal circles to be more than one definition. There’s (1) natural person, (2) artificial person, and (3) legal person. Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute in New York defines a “legal person” as a non-human entity, such as a corporation, which can sue or be sued, own property, and contract. But the legal person cannot vote, marry, or hold public office (although we note, it can invest money in getting voters to do its bidding, and do the same with those elected to public office, and can invest money in passage of laws that—just to pluck an issue out of the air–limit marriage or protect those who don’t want to be involved in certain marriages or declare fertilized eggs are persons). The definition of “artificial person” is a shading of the “legal person” definition. An artificial person is “an entity established by law” that has some of the legal rights and duties as the fertilized egg in the Moon resolution.
And then we come to the “natural person,” a human being who is alive. States are able to give these human beings rights and duties without their consent.
And that’s what Representative Moon wants to do. Without using the word “natural person,” he seeks to create such an entity and then, without the consent of the egg, give it limited rights. We don’t see any indication in his resolution that he wants to give that egg any duties.
We say “limited rights” because the legislature already is on record saying life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness depends on the religious beliefs of others once the fertilized egg emerges from the womb and grows up.
What if this “person” is in the belly of an illegal immigrant? And suppose the egg emerges as a genuine human being? Some legislatures want to say that the egg that Representatives Moon and Brattin want so lovingly to protect as a person regardless of any violence that accompanies the fertilization cannot be a citizen after they are born here and certainly cannot qualify for any scholarships at state colleges and universities.
Gotta respect the egg because it’s a person, you know, even if we don’t respect the person it becomes. Right to birth is one thing. Real right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, and the right to enjoy the gains from their own industry, even if guaranteed in present law and in HJR 98, is more complicated although it, too, is subject to political games, particularly in election years when the games conveniently and selectively ignore that guarantee.
There are a lot of other issues connected to the personhood of the fertilized egg but there’s no reason to stretch this out longer, for now. We’ll get to them later if this bill somehow passes the Senate. The bill will have done its job even if it goes nowhere farther into the process. It has sent the loyalty message to certain constituents. And in an era where some grown-up fertilized eggs don’t care about anything else other than sending a message, that’s good enough.