A World of Tragedy: The real-world consequences of a “human life” amendment

The opponents of reproductive rights are once again calling for a "human life" amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Of course, the Constitution already protects human life; what these extremists really want is to completely ban abortion nationwide. The amendment's innocuous name masks an attempt to strip women of their rights—and a serious threat to women's health and lives.

What would a "human life" amendment do? It would give a human egg, from the moment of its fertilization, "a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed." That's a misleading way of describing an absolute ban on abortion, the criminalization of reproductive health care—including many forms of contraception and fertility treatments such as in vitro fertilization—and the abolition of a woman's right to choose whether or when to have children.

Sadly, we don't have to just imagine the devastating impact this kind of measure would have. Hard evidence of the consequences can be found in a number of countries that already strictly enforce drastic restrictions on family planning and bans on abortion.

In El Salvador, where a fertilized egg has the same legal rights as a person, it is not uncommon to see police officers patrolling hospital corridors, "investigating" premature endings to pregnancies. Emergency rooms become courtrooms of blind persecution, and women who suffer miscarriages and stillbirths are presumed guilty by judge and family alike, tossed into prison, and disowned. A culture of incrimination thrives.

In the Philippines, abortion is banned without exception, and there are many limits on women's ability to access contraceptive information and services.  Not surprisingly, these policies have exacted a terrible toll on women's health. The most recent figures indicate that 221 women die for every 100,000 live births, a figure that has increased more than 36 percent in the past three years. For comparison's sake, about 17 women per 100,000 live births die in the U.S., where safe abortion is, for the most part, much more broadly accessible. And in Nepal, abortion-related complications declined dramatically after abortion was legalized, from 54 percent of facility-treated maternal illnesses in 1998 to 28 percent in 2008-2009.

Make no mistake about it: criminalizing abortion does not stop abortion. It only leads to more illegal and unsafe abortions. And when women secure perilous health care in unsafe settings, they risk grave injury and death. In Latin America, for example, where abortion is largely illegal, 95 percent of abortions are unsafe—and the abortion rate is about two and a half times higher than in Western Europe, where it is generally legal. 

Time and again, the majority of people in the U.S. express their opposition to the kind of extreme ideology that spawns a "human life" amendment. Just last year, voters in Mississippi roundly rejected a personhood amendment. The people of Colorado have decisively voted down proposed personhood amendments twice (although it hasn't dissuaded the extremists who support these amendments from trying again this year). And in April, the Center successfully shut down a personhood ballot measure in Oklahoma, securing a unanimous ruling from the Oklahoma Supreme Court that such measures are "repugnant to the Constitution of the United States."

It is an important part of the Center's mission to ensure that all women have access to family planning and safe and legal abortion—by speaking out against these dangerous proposals when they surface, beating them back in court when they turn up on ballots and in legislation, and putting all politicians and lawmakers on notice that that the right to life, first and foremost, belongs to all women.