National Review Online Pushes Attack On Bill Nye's Debunk Of “Personhood” Laws

The National Review Online (NRO) published a blog and an op-ed authored by apparent non-scientists that attacked “Science Guy” Bill Nye for a recent video in which he explained the questionable science behind anti-choice legislative “personhood” proposals.

Bill Nye “The Science Guy” Challenges Arguments For Anti-Choice “Personhood” Measures

Bill Nye To Pro-“Personhood” Advocates: “You Literally ... Do Not Know What You're Talking About.” In a September 22 video for Big Think, scientist and science educator Bill Nye explained how “the majority of anti-abortion legislation is derived from outdated beliefs that predate smart science by 50 centuries.” Pointing out the absurdity of the arguments behind legislative “personhood” measures that are increasingly advocated for by right-wing media and the far right, Nye said that such proposals reflect “a deep scientific lack of understanding”:

BILL NYE: Many, many, many, many more hundreds of eggs are fertilized than become humans.


But that's not all you need; you have to attach to the uterine wall, the inside of a womb, a woman's womb. But if you're going to hold that as a standard, that is to say, if you're going to say that when an egg is fertilized, it's therefore-- has the same rights as an individual, then whom are you going to sue? Whom are you going to imprison? Every woman who's had a fertilized egg pass through her? Every guy whose sperm has fertilized an egg that didn't become a human? If all these people failed you, it's just a reflection of a deep scientific lack of understanding. You literally -- or, apparently, literally -- don't know what you're talking about. [Big Think, 9/22/15]

NRO Attacks Bill Nye's Facts

NRO Guest Op-Ed: “We Encourage [Bill Nye] To Look At The Facts.” The National Review Online published a guest op-ed on September 28 co-authored by Princeton University jurisprudence professor Robert P. George and Franciscan University of Steubenville philosophy professor Patrick Lee that objected to the explanation of reproductive science Nye outlined in his video, mocked his background as an engineer, and encouraged him to “look at the facts”:

Nye's video is so breathtakingly arrogant and incompetently argued that it is hard to know where to begin. He opens by saying: “Many, many, many, many more hundreds of eggs are fertilized than become humans. Eggs get fertilized, and by that I mean sperm get accepted by ova -- a lot.” The fact he is pointing to here -- the high rate of pre-implantation spontaneous abortions (estimates range from 45 percent to as high as 70 percent) -- is the only bit of science Nye ever mentions in the video. But he thinks one can infer from it that a human being does not come to be until the embryo implants on the uterine wall: "[The sperm's joining the ovum] is not all you need. You have to attach to the uterine wall, the inside of a womb, a woman's womb."


Admittedly, embryology is not the field in which “the science guy” was trained. He studied engineering. But the basic facts of human embryogenesis and early development are not difficult to discover. And they are not in dispute. So, hey, Bill, “We encourage you to look at the facts.”


Clearly, implantation -- the embryo attaching himself or herself (sex is determined from the very beginning) to the uterine wall of the mother's womb -- is only an important stage in the life cycle of the already living and internally self-directed growth of a human being. This stage does not create any fundamental change in the direction of growth of the embryo. From Day One, the embryo has been preparing for this interaction. The uterus provides a suitable environment, nutrition, and disposal of waste, but not a new program or instructions for a new trajectory of growth -- the instructions for his or her full self-development to the mature stage of a human organism have been present within the embryo's genetic and epigenetic constitution from the zygote stage (Day One) on. [National Review Online, 9/28/15]

NRO: Bill Nye's Claims “Constitut[e] A Profound Disservice To -- And Breeds Distrust Of -- Science.” In a September 29 blog, NRO author Wesley J. Smith dubbed Nye “The Ideological Guy,” writing that “there has been much deconstruction of Bill Nye's sophistry in defense of abortion, including here at NRO, which effectively dismantled his ridiculous assertion that because embryos don't implant, somehow that means a human embryo is not really a 'human life.'” Smith went on to argue that Nye's video ignores the moral and scientific reality of abortion:

But SCIENCE! cannot tell us whether abortion is right, wrong, or morally indifferent. All science can do is tell us the biological nature of that which is destroyed in an abortion.

And there is no doubt that embryology-that's science-clearly teaches that a new human organism comes into being upon the completion of the fertilization process. (See here for more details and apt quotes from embryology textbooks.)

This is science: I am the same organism as I was when I was a one-celled embryo. Bill Nye is too.

This is morality. Gestating human life does or does not have moral value.

But really, the defense of abortion based on Nye's arguments about the supposed lack of humanity for very early embryos is entirely ridiculous. That is not the stage of human life impacted by abortion.


The science says that these lives are “human” lives since they are gestating individuals of our species. Bill Nye pretending otherwise-claiming that he is being “fact based” -is not only ridiculous, but constitutes a profound disservice to-and breeds distrust of-science because he conflates his own moral beliefs with scientific “facts.” [National Review Online, 9/29/15]

Medical And Legal Experts Agree With Nye's Assessment Of “Personhood”

American Congress Of Obstetricians And Gynecologists: "'Personhood' Measures Substitute Ideology For Science And Represent A Grave Threat To Women's Health And Reproductive Rights." The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists condemned “personhood” measures in 2012, explaining that they “substitute ideology for science” and “would have wide-reaching harmful implications for the practice of medicine.” An ACOG news release issued on February 10, 2012, said (emphasis added):

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) is unequivocally opposed to the so-called “personhood” laws or amendments being considered in several states. These measures erode women's basic rights to privacy and bodily integrity; deny women access to the full spectrum of preventive health care including contraception; and undermine the doctor-patient relationship. ACOG firmly believes that science must be at the core of public health policies and medical decision-making that affect the health and life of women.

Like Mississippi's failed “Personhood Amendment” Proposition 26, these misleading and ambiguously worded “personhood” measures substitute ideology for science and represent a grave threat to women's health and reproductive rights that, if passed, would have long-term negative outcomes for our patients, their families, and society. Although the individual wording in these proposed measures varies from state to state, they all attempt to give full legal rights to a fertilized egg by defining “personhood” from the moment of fertilization, before conception (ie, pregnancy/ implantation) has occurred. This would have wide-reaching harmful implications for the practice of medicine and on women's access to contraception, fertility treatments, pregnancy termination, and other essential medical procedures.

These “personhood” proposals, as acknowledged by proponents, would make condoms, natural family planning, and spermicides the only legally allowed forms of birth control. Thus, some of the most effective and reliable forms of contraception, such as oral contraceptives, intrauterine devices (IUDs), and other forms of FDA-approved hormonal contraceptives could be banned in states that adopt “personhood” measures. Women's very lives would be jeopardized if physicians were prohibited from terminating life-threatening ectopic and molar pregnancies. Women who experience pregnancy loss or other negative pregnancy outcomes could be prosecuted in some cases.

So-called “personhood” measures would have a negative impact on fertility treatments, including in vitro fertilization (IVF), that allow otherwise infertile couples to achieve pregnancy and create their families. Such proposals would also invariably ban embryonic stem cell research, depriving all of society potential lifesaving therapies. [ACOG, 2/10/12]

Center For Reproductive Rights: Personhood Legislation Could Subject “Miscarriage[s] To Criminal Investigations And Possibly Jail Time.” According to a 2012 report from the Center for Reproductive Rights, “personhood measures would -- and are intended to -- completely and absolutely ban abortion, with no exceptions.” Discussing the ripple effect such legislation could have on women's access to other kinds of reproductive health care, the report discussed how these measures could stop “doctors from providing the best medical care to pregnant women” and potentially criminalize pregnancy:

Prenatal personhood measures would--and are intended to--completely and absolutely ban abortion, with no exceptions. Many of these measures would also effectively ban common forms of contraception and restrict or even ban assisted reproductive technologies such as IVF.

Moreover, the legal impact of prenatal personhood measures extends far beyond banning abortion and other forms of reproductive health care. Because extending legal rights to fetuses could criminalize any conduct that might harm a fetus, a prenatal personhood law could chill doctors from providing the best medical care to pregnant women. For example, in some cases an embryo implants in a fallopian tube, instead of in the uterus, and will not be able to continue to develop; all such pregnancies (one type of “ectopic pregnancy”) are health-threatening - and possibly life-threatening - for the pregnant woman, as there is a serious risk of fallopian tube rupture. Therefore, these pregnancies must be treated quickly. However, a prenatal personhood law might put a physician at risk of criminal liability for treating the pregnant woman, despite the risks to her health and life. Physicians would similarly be at risk for helping a woman experiencing a miscarriage because they could be criminally prosecuted for harming the embryo or fetus.

Further, a prenatal personhood measure might subject a woman who suffers a pregnancy-related complication or a miscarriage to criminal investigations and possibly jail time for homicide, manslaughter or reckless endangerment. And because so many laws use the terms “persons” or “people,” a prenatal personhood measure could affect large numbers of a state's laws, changing the application of thousands of laws and resulting in unforeseeable, unintended, and absurd consequences. [Center for Reproductive Rights, 2012