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The Fertilized Egg and the Decapitated Flower

Christopher Brauchli

What's tough? Life's tough.
What's life? A magazine.
Where do you get it? Newstand?
What's it cost? Ten cents.
Only got a nickel. That's tough, etc.

- A child's saying circa 1945.

Switzerland and Colorado have at least two things in common. Both have lots of mountains and some of the citizens of both countries have great concern about life that some would not consider life. In Colorado it's called Amendment 48 and will be voted on on November 4 by the citizens of Colorado. In Switzerland it's called the Gene Technology Act. Consider Colorado.

Amendment 48 that is to be voted on on November 4 redefines the word "person" and does it by means of an amendment to the Colorado Constitution rather than resorting to anything as mundane as medical terminology. Whereas scientists have long believed that pregnancy begins when a fertilized egg is implanted in the uterus, Kristi Burton, a 21 year old girl from Peyton, Colorado (who doesn't believe "there's enough scientific evidence to prove evolution") is satisfied with redefining the word "person" and implanting the new definition in the Colorado constitution. Accordingly she has devoted most of the last two years promoting Amendment 48 that says: "As used in sections 3, 6, and 25 of Article II of the state constitution, the terms ‘person' or ‘persons' shall include any human being from the moment of fertilization."


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After the amendment was drafted she organized volunteers to help get the amendment on the ballot and, since the success of that effort, has devoted her energy to making sure it is passed and becomes law. If her amendment is adopted by Colorado voters, Kristi will have helped Colorado redefine a scientific term without the benefit of science. Following its adoption, a fertilized egg (FE) in Colorado, even though only seconds old, will be endowed with the same inalienable rights that all the rest of us enjoy. Since the FE has become a person, if anyone does anything to interfere with the FE's existence, that person may be charged with and convicted of murder. If an FE does anything bad it will be entitled to an attorney if it is charged with a crime. It is unlikely the FE will do anything bad. It is less unlikely that the person with whom the FE is living will not do something that might get Kristi upset and cause her to try to have that person charged with a crime.

Meanwhile, in Switzerland scientists who have been creating genetically modified food are, according to a recent story in the Wall Street Journal, forced to consider whether those experiments are humiliating the plants that are the object of the modification. According to the paper, in the 1990s the Swiss constitution was amended "in order to defend the dignity of all creatures-including the leafy kind-against unwanted consequences of genetic manipulation." The amendment was followed by enactment of a law called the Gene Technology Act. Following its enactment the government assembled a panel of philosophers, lawyers, geneticists and theologians whose task was to "establish the meaning of flora's dignity." The panel was faithful to its task and produced a 22 page report which, according to the WSJ: "stated that vegetation has an inherent value and that it is immoral to arbitrarily harm plants by, say, ‘decapitation of wildflowers at the roadside without rational reason.'" Whether a desire to put the decapitated flower on the table in a vase as an ornament in a mountain cabin would subject the flower arranger to punishment is something that another panel would probably be asked to rule on if the flower's executioner could be located.

Beat Keller is a molecular biologist at the University of Zurich who wanted to undertake a field trial of genetically modified wheat that resisted fungus. Dr. Keller had to apply to the state for permission to undertake the trial because in addressing genetic modification the panel had concluded that the dignity of plants was safeguarded "as long as their independence, i.e. reproductive ability and adaptive ability, are ensured." If the genetic modification rendered the not yet grown but "to be grown" plant sterile, that would unconstitutionally infringe on the unborn plant's rights. In his grant application Dr. Keller had to explain why his efforts would not "disturb the vital functions or lifestyle" of the wheat. His application was approved in part because it was determined that by attempting to preserve the wheat from the adverse effects of the fungus he was in fact enhancing its quality of life since the fungus, if unchecked, resulted in the wheat's untimely demise.

Christof Sautter, a botanist at Switzerland's Federal Institute of Technology was unable to get permission to do a field trial on transgenic wheat so he moved the project to the United States. The WSJ quoted him as saying that he'd not mentioned the Swiss rules to his American colleagues since "They'll think Swiss people are crazy." He's probably right. On the other hand, if the Swiss are told of Kristi's constitutional amendment they'll probably think that Americans are crazy. Both groups would be right.

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