By CAROL TOWARNICKY
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
The "Microscopic-Americans" rights movement has been growing for a while, but it's just beginning to show.
Yes, "Miscroscopic Americans." That's what a writer for the conservative National Review called zygotes and embryos in the first days after fertilization. Growing numbers of right-wing crusaders are pushing to enshrine in law the religious belief that these microscopic clumps of undifferentiated cells have the same inalienable rights as "post-born" Americans.
If they succeed, we could lose the right to choose not only abortion but contraception, in-vitro fertilization or genetic testing. And we would not be able to benefit from stem-cell research.
With a combination of scientific distortion and emotional appeals, embryo advocates employ a strikingly similar strategy to the one used in the Terri Schiavo case. No surprise: Many are part of the same extreme fringe of the anti-abortion movement.
For the most part, they did not argue the religious belief that Schiavo should be kept alive even though she was missing the sentient part of her brain. Instead, they painted fantastic pictures of Schiavo laughing and feeling hunger and pain.
In the same way, members of the embryo-rights movement do not argue for their real goal: That the government should impose on us the belief of some religions that even a few cells without nervous systems or beating hearts have souls and therefore are full persons.
Instead, they call pre-implantation zygotes "babies," and "pre-born clients" and term their destruction "the equivalent of abortion." They equate research on human embryos with Nazi experiments.
Examples of this strategy are included in a forthcoming briefing paper, "The Politics of the Embryo," from MergerWatch, a group organized to protect services when public hospitals merge with religious ones.
In the paper, authors Lois Uttley, Ronnie Pawelko and Rabbi Dennis Ross provide a short review of reproductive biology (which even those of us who have experienced it first-womb may not fully understand).
About a day after fertilization, the egg (called a zygote) divides into two cells, and the next day into four and so on. For the next few days, it continues to divide as it makes its way down a woman's fallopian tube. Within five or six days, it has about 30-34 cells in its inner mass. About seven to 12 days after fertilization, if the embryo implants in the uterus, then -- and only then -- is pregnancy established, according to medical experts.
At every stage, some zygotes and embryos -- 60 percent by one estimate -- are lost to natural causes. So every woman who's been pregnant likely has lost three more of these so-called "babies." Yet, in the language of many states' fetal-assault laws (including Pennsylvania's) zygotes like those have legal protections. And the movement wants to go much further.
Look at just one issue raised by the prospect of zygote personhood: birth control.
During the presidential campaign, I predicted that, if given the power, religious conservatives would move to make contraception unavailable. In response, I got e-mails from readers who never had heard conservatives argue against birth control. Forty years after the U.S. Supreme Court's Griswold decision recognizing a constitutional right to privacy to choose contraception, the issue appears quite settled.
But some conservatives believe that the hormones in birth-control pills -- even the regular kind, not the higher dose found in emergency contraception -- may harm eggs after fertilization, making contraception the murder of "embryonic persons." So they oppose government funding for contraception.
In recent weeks, pharmacists in several states have refused to fill prescriptions for birth-control pills and some state legislatures have rushed to protect them from being forced to fulfill their professional responsibilities.
Rights for Micro-Americans don't just trample on the rights of all us "post-borns." They're the crux of a crusade that seeks to substitute ludicrous pseudoscience for the laws of the land.
X Carol Towarnicky is chief editorial writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.