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August 30, 2015

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The eggs and us (and corporations)

Let’s talk personhood, people.

Personhood is an anti-abortion movement that holds that life begins at conception, giving fertilized eggs all the rights of a human being. It might make it impossible to kidnap them for in-vitro fertilization. It could outlaw some forms of contraception.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., claims every fertilized egg is protected by the 14th Amendment. Many Senate candidates are personhood supporters, including Cory Gardner, who is running a very close race in Colorado against Mark Udall, a Democrat.

No! Wait! Wait! Cory Gardner just changed his mind. Obviously, this is going to take a little unraveling. Give me a minute.

The abortion issue has been on everyone’s mind lately. Last week, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous finding that the 35-foot buffer zones around Massachusetts abortion clinics violated protesters’ freedom of speech. We do not have time to discuss this in detail, except to point out that this decision came from people who work in a building where the protesters aren’t allowed within 250 feet of the front door.

Bigger news came Monday, when the court told us that business owners have a right to express their religious beliefs by eliminating certain contraceptives from their employees’ health care coverage. This was the Hobby Lobby case, which brought us right back to personhood in no time at all.

The Green family, which owns Hobby Lobby, believes as a matter of faith that human life begins at the moment of conception. So, despite the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employee health plans cover contraceptives, the Greens draw the line at anything that they believe might endanger a fertilized egg, like Plan B or IUDs.

Many scientists would disagree with the Greens’ theory about how contraceptives work, but it doesn’t matter. Religion trumps.

Both Hobby Lobby and the personhood movement mark a turning point in our long, grueling national battle over reproductive rights. Many Americans are repelled by late-term abortion, but they don’t necessarily feel the same emotional affinity for a fertilized egg. The fact that this is actually a debate about theological dogma gets a lot clearer when you’re closer to the start of the gestational saga.

When given the opportunity, voters have made it very clear that they don’t like the idea of hurting childless couples’ chances for in-vitro fertilization out of concern for the constitutional rights of the eggs. A personhood amendment to the state constitution was rejected in a referendum in Mississippi. Also twice in Colorado.

But the beat goes on. Paul, a presidential hopeful, introduced a version of the personhood law in the Senate. “I am 100 percent pro-life. I believe life begins at conception and that abortion takes the life of an innocent human being. It is the duty of our government to protect this life as a right guaranteed under the Constitution. For this reason, I introduced S. 583, the Life at Conception Act on March 14, 2013,” he said on his website.

On March 19, 2013, Paul discussed the matter on CNN with Wolf Blitzer, who asked whether there should be any exception for rape, incest or the life of the mother. Instantly, Paul announced that there were actually “thousands of exceptions. You know, I’m a physician, and every individual case is going to be different and everything is going to be particular to that individual case and what’s going on with that mother and the medical circumstances of that mother.”

To summarize: 100 percent pro-life except for thousands of exceptions.

This should be a big issue in November. North Dakota has a personhood referendum coming up. A number of Republican candidates in key Senate races are personhood supporters, including Joni Ernst in Iowa; Thom Tillis, who’s running against Sen. Kay Hagan in North Carolina; Tom Cotton, who’s challenging Mark Pryor in Arkansas; and, until about five minutes ago, Gardner in Colorado.

Gardner had supported the unsuccessful personhood referendums in Colorado when he was a state representative. Then he went to Congress in 2010 and twice co-sponsored Life Begins at Conception bills there. Then he announced he was running for the Senate against Udall.

Then he announced that he had changed his position on personhood entirely. “The fact that it restricts contraception, it was not the right position,” he told the Denver Post recently.

Supporters said it was unfair to presume that his change of heart was inspired by the need to run a statewide race in a state that had twice rejected the idea by 3-1 majorities.

Give him a break. This doesn’t have to be a spur-of-the-moment flip-flop for purely partisan purposes. Maybe he never noticed the contraception problem. While he was co-sponsoring the bills in Congress.

Once again, we are reminded that men do not get pregnant.

Or corporations. We keep being told they’re people, but if they were people who could reproduce, I guarantee you contraceptives would not only be free, there would be a tax break for taking them.

Gail Collins is a columnist for The New York Times.

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