If history is any guide, Newt Gingrich’s views on birth control, abortion, and the controversial “personhood” movement will be likely targets for Democrats if he wins the 2012 GOP nomination for president.
Gingrich recently signed the “Personhood Republican Presidential Candidate Pledge” which affirms that “unborn children” should be regarded as persons with full legal rights “from the moment of conception … without exception and without compromise.” Gingrich signed the pledge after taking heat for an earlier statement stating that human life began after embryo implantation in the womb (which occurs a few days after fertilization). His campaign has since clarified: “Newt believes that human life begins at conception, that is, at the moment of fertilization.” If enacted into law, this seemingly small distinction could have serious implications for the legality of many forms of birth control.
The “personhood” movement represents the most ideologically consistent endpoint of the anti-abortion movement. In their view, once a human sperm fertilizes an egg, the zygote deserves full protection as a legal “person” comparable to a born child. Under this standard, abortion would become illegal even in cases of rape and incest — one of the goals of “personhood” advocates. However, recognizing fertilized eggs as legal persons would also have serious implications for issues other than abortion. As Ari Armstrong and Diana Hsieh describe in their 2010 paper, this includes potentially limiting women’s ability to receive in vitro fertilization and physicians’ ability to treat women with life-threatening ectopic pregnancies. But one of the biggest political issues would be the legality of many forms of birth control.
According to Personhood USA, “birth control that causes the death of a living human being would be affected.” Hence, IUDs would also become illegal because they are “designed to kill the tiniest children by preventing implantation.” Medications such as “Plan B” or the “morning after pill” (which can block implantation of a fertilized egg) would also be outlawed.
Combination oral contraceptives act by suppression of gonadotropins. Although the primary mechanism of this action is inhibition of ovulation, other alterations include changes in the cervical mucus (which increase the difficulty of sperm entry into the uterus) and the endometrium (which reduce the likelihood of implantation).
For these reasons, the American Association of Pro Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists argues that birth control pills are not merely contraceptives (preventing fertilization), but also abortifacients (abortion-inducing drugs). Mississippi “personhood” advocates similarly opposed “forms of the pill which act to prevent implantation of the newly formed human into the lining of the womb.” Because birth control pills can prevent implantation in the same manner as IUDs, the logical implication is that they would also have to be outlawed, even if some “personhood” advocates claim otherwise. (Methods of birth control that worked solely by preventing fertilization would remain legal, including condoms, spermicidal foam, and the “rhythm method.”)