“Personhood” Gets Personal 

A woman fighting infertility brings two legislators to tears.

click to enlarge Whitney Anderson tells reporters Thursday that the personhood bill would criminalize her attempts at in-vitro fertilization. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Whitney Anderson tells reporters Thursday that the personhood bill would criminalize her attempts at in-vitro fertilization.

What does “personhood” really mean?

That’s the question infertility advocates, a doctor and two Democratic state legislators tackle in a Thursday press conference at the General Assembly Building.

The controversial bill, sponsored by conservative Delegate Robert G. Marshall, would give “unborn children at every stage of development” -- from conception onward -- legal status as persons and citizens. Marshall’s bill passed the House of Delegates on Feb. 14; the Senate will consider it Feb. 23.

At the press conference, opponents of the controversial “personhood” amendment fire off a barrage of legal and scientific objections.

The unintended consequences of the bill haven’t been examined, says Richmond Delegate Jennifer McClellan, a Democrat. If the bill passes, McClellan says, all 25,000-plus references to a “person” in the Code of Virginia would have to be interpreted to include an unborn fetus.

Could a woman who miscarries be held criminally liable? McClellan asks. Could embryos and couples become adversaries in a court case? Would frozen embryos have a constitutionally guaranteed right to life?

“Make no mistake about it -- this is an attack on contraception,” adds Henrico Sen. Donald McEachin, also a Democrat.

Marshall’s bill ends with, “Nothing in this section shall be interpreted as affecting lawful assisted conception.” But “the word ‘lawful’ is a big, huge red flag,” says Barbara Collura, executive director of national infertility organization Resolve.

If the bill passes, she says, assisted-conception methods that risk damaging embryos, or producing unviable embryos, could become unlawful in Virginia. “Under HB1, that would be unacceptable and illegal. Because it would have to be treated the same as a death, or a murder, of a whole human being.”

After about 30 minutes of impassioned arguments from Collura, the two legislators, a woman who conceived through in vitro fertilization and a Richmond fertility doctor, a young woman from Roanoke stands up to speak.

Whitney Anderson tells the story of how she has battled infertility for six years, going through several rounds of in-vitro and enduring five miscarriages. She and her husband are now pursuing gestational surrogacy, she says.

“Isn’t it ironic this legislation aimed at those who don’t even want children would take away my rights and my dream to have a child?” she says. Her voice rises, and nearly breaks. “Me, the person who’s fought and clawed for a way through this disease. Me, the person who would move heaven and earth to have a child. I will be the innocent bystander who becomes a casualty of this legislation."

Tears come to the eyes of many in the audience in the small briefing room, including Delegate McClellan and Sen. McEachin.

“Let me get myself together,” McEachin says, as a knot of reporters pursues him into the hall. He answers a few questions and then pauses. “Sorry,” he says, “I’m still torn up by that woman in there.”

Does he think the personhood amendment will pass?

“I hope we find a way to beat it,” McEachin says. “And I’m always hopeful.”

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