“Every Sperm is sacred” amendment

I’m loving this strategy.

After Oklahoma conservatives introduced a “personhood” bill to the state Senate on Monday, Sen. Constance Johnson decided to follow in Virginia Senator Janet Howell’s footsteps and attach an amendment in protest, which would add this language to the bill:

However, any action in which a man ejaculates or otherwise deposits semen anywhere but in a woman’s vagina shall be interpreted and construed as an action against an unborn child.

Thanks, L!

34 thoughts on ““Every Sperm is sacred” amendment

  1. Kudos for the Monty Python hommage! But this falls even flatter than Sen. Howell’s prank in Virginia. I hope I’m not being overly punctilious here, but don’t the sponsors of these amendments understand that a joke (including one intended to be instructive) doesn’t work if it doesn’t hew at least to some internal logic that ties the punchline to the set-up?

  2. Nemo:

    The laughter here is not that of the perfect punch-line, but of “she who laughs last, laughs best” or “now it’s your turn to cry” or “threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?”, that is, of just retribution.

    People who are stepped on or messed over tend to want to step on or mess over those who have stepped on or messed over them and tend to enjoy their moment of triumph.

    You’re not in favor of turning the other cheek, are you?

  3. I don’t see how the punchline fails at all. Seems to me the same logic underlies both amendments.

    Pro-life logic: a zygote = person from the moment of sperm and egg meeting. And a zygote cannot live outside a woman’s body. Therefore, intentionally expelling a zygote from a woman’s body or disallowing it to attach to the uterus = killing a person.

    Sacred sperm logic: every sperm is a person. And a sperm cannot live outside a man’s body *except* when it combines with an egg and implants in the uterus in a woman’s body. Therefore, intentionally expelling a sperm from a man’s body = killing a person *unless* it is expelled into the vagina of a fertile woman (preferably within about 3 days before or 1 day after ovulation).

    I totally get the joke.

  4. I guess I get that, SW, but for it to be funny in the spirit of “hoist with one’s own petard” or “turnabout is fair play”, which the sponsors and many others seem to think these amendments were, there generally has to be some element that’s missing here.

    In the case of Oklahoma, the anti-Onanism amendment has no real logical relationship to the personhood bill. I get that it’s supposed to be retribution, as you say, but it’s almost as much of a non-sequitur as if she had added an amendment simply providing for the horsewhipping of the bill’s sponsors. The more people treat the amendment stunt as though it “works” either as analogy, as reductio, or as irony – which I can’t see that it does – the more the mistaken impression is reinforced that the amendment actually embodies some insight into the original bill (which clouds the relevant policy issues, I think). And this is in no way to defend the original bill, I should add.

  5. Philfemgal, the problem there is that what you’ve described as “sacred sperm logic” is a big departure from what you’ve described as “pro-life logic”. You’ve substituted a premise (every sperm is a person) that no one really holds and which doesn’t really follow from or undergird the logic of the original personhood bill. For the joke to work (at least according to the mechanisms by which such jokes are usually judged to operate), the “sacred sperm logic” would have to derive in some way from the “pro-life logic” (e.g. starting from “zygote=person”), which it doesn’t. They proceed from different places.

  6. Nemo:

    Maybe you’re too nice of a person, but lots of people find it very funny to see the tables turned on those who mess them over or who make their lives difficult.

    I myself seem to have missed school the day that they taught us to laugh when the tables are turned, but it formed and forms an important part of the primary school curriculum in all civilized societies; and I understand that almost everyone masters it as a vital skill and a step towards social integration.

    Not that I don’t have my own perverse sense of humor.

  7. SW, it certainly can be funny to see the tables turned. But as we know, that figurative expression comes from the concept of literally turning the table on which a table game is set up 180 degrees so that a player is forced to play from his opponent’s position – yet still the same game, same rules, same setup. Here, my point is that the tables *aren’t* being turned, which could arguably have been amusing. Rather, the amendment represents the addition or substitution of a different table with a different game and different rules, following a different logic from the original bill. Even if justified in some sense, it’s not exactly humorous, and to treat it as turning the tables necessarily obscures analysis of the original bill (by suggesting, for example, that the amendment is based on a valid reductio of the bill). But as I said, perhaps I am being too punctilious here; I am, after all, one of those pedantic types who got annoyed by the fact that Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic” wasn’t.

  8. I don’t think that you’re too punctilious, but your punctiliousness score is higher than normal. You already know that.

    It’s good that there are people around who point out that pop music lyrics (I translated Morisette’s song as a favor to a woman who worked in the place I taught English) often fail to meet standards of precision.

    For example, I was listening to Joan Baez’s wonderful song, Diamonds and Rust, a while ago, and she talks about “a light-year ago” as if it were longer than other years.

    Still, when people are playing football, we should not expect them to play chamber music.

  9. Nemo, no the sperm belief doesn’t follow from the zygote belief or vice-versa. But both are absurd metaphysical claims such that in evaluating the beliefs (for those who don’t already accept that ensoulment or some other magical metaphysical event happens at conception) one is no more plausible than the other.

    So I take it the point of the amendment is something like this: you want *your* crazy unpopular belief about personhood enshrined into law and used as a basis for controlling other people’s (women’s) bodies? Well fine–I want *my* crazy unpopular belief about personhood enshrined into law and used as a basis for controlling other people’s (men’s) bodies as well.

    Or maybe we just have different senses of humor? (Many pro-choice supporters I know, though, seem to find things like this funny precisely because the notion that a zygote is a person really is just as batshit crazy to them as the claim that a sperm is a person.)
    Of course this allows that the two beliefs in question are logically independent of one another and one can consistently deny one while affirming the other.

  10. Nemo, I can’t tell if you’re serious. You mean to say you don’t think the Monty Python song is funny because nobody actually believes that every sperm is sacred while lots of people believe that every zygote is sacred? Or are you being ironic?

  11. Philfemgal, it’s like the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The fact that nobody actually believes in a pasta deity doesn’t prevent it from being funny.

  12. Philfemgal, I suspect the reason that no one (I’m speaking in generalities here; there are always some outliers) seems to believe that sperms should be treated as people, while many do conclude either (i) that zygotes are people or (ii) that it is ethically less fraught and therefore preferable to treat them as *though* they enjoy some rights accorded to people, depends in part on the idea that there is a rational basis for considering the ontological and ethical status of zygotes *in some sense* differently from gametes – something that quite a few staunchly pro-choice people would allow, even if they don’t believe zygotes are people or that any rights zygotes have would trump the mother’s countervailing rights. So I don’t think the two premises (sperm = person; zygote = person) can be lumped together as equally absurd claims, and I’m not sure that many people who regard them both as false would also regard them as equally absurd. At any rate they are distinct enough not to warrant the implicit analogy that the amendment suggested. I’m not sure that the bit about “ensoulment or some other magical metaphysical event” matters, except perhaps in the sense that becoming the subject of moral rights/duties could be seen as, or as depending on, a metaphysical event. I don’t want to wade into the issues of abortion or personhood, though, except to the extent necessary to point out that the premises/implications of the original bill and the (tongue-in-cheek) premises/implications of the amendment really don’t have much in common – although Sen. Johnson seems from her remarks to think they do. That doesn’t mean what Sen. Johnson did isn’t funny in a way, as even a random masturbation gag can be. But it doesn’t work on the level of, say, satire or irony.

    However, Sen. Johnson, including from her subsequent remarks, seems to think they do or she wouldn’t have linked masturbation to the personhood question. That Jamie, the mechanics of the Monty Python joke are different. (For those who don’t know, the sketch was poking fun at Catholic views on contraception, and/or perhaps poking fun at Anglican impressions of Catholic views on contraception; no real relationship to the personhood question.) It also would have been funny on some level if Sen. Johnson had proposed to amend the original bill by adding a clever dirty limerick about a Frenchman to the end of it, but as with the actual amendment, it would be a kind of non-sequitur. Regarding the FSM, it is an amusing idea in itself, but the real logic of the *joke* it represents (not every funny thing constitutes a joke, of course) is the idea that belief in any deity might as well be belief in a pasta deity. There is a logic underlying the point, and the conceptual link between the respective concepts of God and the FSM, that is relatively easy to discern even if one doesn’t don’t concur in it. It makes the satire *work*. The same can’t really be said of Sen. Johnson’s amendment. At least, that is my opinion.

  13. Oops, left part of a stray sentence at the beginning of paragraph 2 just above. Not bad enough to make it unreadable I guess. By the FSM, why can we not edit our comments here?

  14. Oh, FSM=Flying Spaghetti Monster!

    I can’t believe how long that took me to deduce. Must get more sleep.

  15. Yes, I just realized that as an abbreviation, “FSM” is closer than I would really like to “FGM”.

  16. Nemo, nobody actually believes that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is real, whereas many people think the God of Abraham is real. Yet the Flying Spaghetti Monster is still a good joke and still makes a good point. The isomorphism between the view parodied and the parodying view does not have to be exact.

    (I also think the Python scene is more about personhood than you’re remembering, by the way.)

  17. “Another pro-choice legislator, Democrat Jim Wilson, attempted to add an amendment to the bill that would require the father of the child to be financially responsible for the woman’s health care, housing, transportation, and nourishment while she was pregnant.”

    This one actually shouldn’t be a joke and makes sense to me. You want to call a zygote a child, then that mother ought to be able to sue for child support.

    My real concern is that the abortion battle seems to be morphing into a war on contraception. Suddenly in the republican party it is anathema to say that contraception is a good thing or that you might have actually used contraception, and it is a badge of honor to have a big family.

  18. Nemo it must come down to differences of opinion I guess. Everything you said about why the FSM works as satire I think (IMO) exactly explains also why the sperm is sacred amendment works as satire also. (And if it’s true that some pro-choicers are a bit more sympathetic to the idea that a zygote is a person than that a sperm is a person, well I would assume it’s also true that some atheists are a bit more sympathetic to, say, the god of Episcopalianism than the pastafarian god. I’m still quite amused by both.)

  19. as far as i can tell, the proposed amendment works as satire less on the grounds of “zygote = person” and so “sperm = person,” but more on the grounds of, so you all don’t like big government, but are fine with government intrusion into my body? right, let’s see how you like it. in this, it provides some insight into the original bill not on the grounds of pro-life logic, but on the grounds of protesting state intrusion into (women’s) bodies.
    also, it’s funny. but not as funny (imho) as the amendment requiring invasive anal probes for men on par with invasive sonograms for women seeking abortion.

  20. sk wins this IMHO. Women are imprisoned de facto by patriarchical assumptions for being the biological loci for individual embryos while men, who 300 million to 1 outnumber that biological fact by being the willing/manipulative/violent/loving contributors to that status, in any given case are largely also given a pass no matter what the circumstances of that contribution. We have presidential candidates who would deny abortion to rape victims!! The very fact that huge numbers of people apparently are so brainwashed as to think that that is an acceptable asymmetry is reason enough for Swiftian strategy just to wake people up. There is no reasonable defense to warrant elevating embryonic values in some general sense over those of real people in real life circumstances in all cases. That is just crazy.


    Whooohooo! The Virginia House has passed conception “personhood” legislation that requires transvaginal ultrasounds prior to abortion.

    Time is ripe to get the state to require prostate exams for men who seek to waive paternity rights! Such a requirement accomplishes at least three things.

    • First, a properly gloved and lubricated exam conducted by a licensed medical professional shows a concern for the father’s well-being and ability to make autonomous decisions. After all, it is pretty clear that some failure of his man parts has caused confusion about his desires to be a proper daddy [um, but that would be justifying an invasive medical procedure because of a medical concern, oops].

    • Second, it plausibly protects the unfatherless child from becoming fatherless. Surely the state owes it to every child to make the father think twice prior to abandonment and a rectal exam is a small price to pay for making that happen. To increase its impact, at the time of the exam, the father must be provided state sponsored materials on any possible benefits of two parent families for children and a personal collection of age-progressed pictures of his child from the present through adulthood which includes at least one picture of a possible grandchild.

    • Finally, the state is able to teach the father the lesson in a visceral way that the prostate isn’t all just for fun and games with no consequences for abandoning one’s child out of convenience for the sake of his lifestyle.

    The benefits of such legislation would be huge and critics should be easily silenced. After all, except in the case of rape or medical sperm extraction (for which exceptions should be made), the man already agreed to have his prostate stimulated or his child wouldn’t exist.

    Momentum is with us! Now is not the time to stand down.

  22. A standard prostate exam is a completely painless and not really uncomfortable procedure that takes about 30 seconds.

    It is a good way to detect prostate cancer as well as the more common benign prostatic hyperplasia.

    However, what strikes me is that in speaking of this simple and useful exam as a “fate worse than death”, we reproduce the macho idea that it is humiliating or degrading for a male to be penetrated by another male, in this case, the finger of the male urologist.

    That same idea, if I can call it an “idea”, is the source of much homophobic prejudice and violence.

    So when well-intentioned progressives suggest that “real” men need undergo a prostatic exam (which according to the Mayo Clinic, all males should have yearly after age 40),
    as a kind of retribution for women having to undergo an unnecessary and punitive ultrasound test, they contribute to an unconscious climate of homophobia.

  23. Hmmm… Yes, you caught me out. I’m a liberal. But I’m not sure that this is fair fodder for liberal bashing.

    Generally, a transvaginal ultrasound is likewise a pretty quick not too uncomfortable procedure. It is also a simple and useful exam important to the health of many women and children. Having been lucky enough to experience both a transvaginal ultrasound and rectal exam (no prostate though), I’d very willingly agree that they are pretty much on a par, slightly better than a pap smear. I wasn’t thinking at all about the purported pain of prostate exams, and mentioned nothing about pain or “a fate worse than death.”

    Rather, the relevant parallel between the “personhood” bill and my suggested, shall we say “childhood” bill, is the unnecessary intrusiveness of internal physical exams that many, I hazard to say most, would find demeaning when done only for non-medically necessary, paternalistic, controlling, moralistic reasons in order to teach “defective” zygote donors a lesson in the guise of helping them make autonomous decisions.

    Now, granted transvaginal ultrasounds and prostate exams are on a par in terms of comfort and medical importance (when necessary), both bills have the effect of making an otherwise sound medical procedure demeaning and punitive. I can see how against a background of homophobia, the childhood bill would plausibly contribute to homophobia. But likewise, against a background of misogyny, the personhood bill would plausibly contribute to misogyny.

  24. Roxanne,

    OK, I understand. So the bill doesn’t actually mandate the transvaginal procedure per se, but as a practical matter the earliest pregnancies would need one in order to comply with the legislation. Got it now.

    That raises the question in my mind, what kind of due diligence does an abortion provider normally carry out in terms of imaging, particularly with verifying the determination of the gestational age of the fetus?

  25. Roxanne:

    No, you did not say that rectal penetration is a fate worse than death, but that “idea” is part of collective idiocy and actions acquire meaning in a collective context.

    As to misogyny, isn’t the “idea” that it is degrading or humiliating for a male to be penetrated basically misogynic, since it comes from the “idea” that a male who is penetrated becomes “female” and thus, inferior to a real male?

    How about obliging males to undergo an ultrasound of their urinary system? It’s more costly than a digital prostatic exam, probably just as costly as the ultrasound for women involved.

  26. (oops, the “personhood” bill goes with the point of conception, not the ultrasound bit…)

    S. Wallerstein: The goal, I take it, is to identify an unnecessary invasive procedure to parts typically understood to be pretty darn private related to reproduction.

    If you mean an external ultrasound of the male urinary system, then we lose the “unnecessary invasive procedure to parts typically understood to be pretty darn private.”

    If you mean an internal ultrasound, I think that would be very painful. But lets leave that to the side and assume meds can manage the pain.

    The bigger problem is that there is a disconnect.

    Part of the problem with the transvaginal ultrasound is precisely the demeaning “let her have it, she knows how to take it nudge nudge, teach the slut a lesson” kind of message going on that is part of the misogyny.

    How do you get a parallel message to work with the case of men? I think I must agree with you that it works with the rectal exam precisely because the homophobia and its relationship to misogyny.

    But this means that in one case misogyny is being used to demean and punish a woman, in the other case a man. The success of both strategies would hinge on a misogynistic homophobic background. So, I guess I still see both plans as equally offensive.

    If you are saying it be wrong to pursue such legislation if the Virginia bill becomes law, well yes, of course.

    If you are saying it is wrong to demonstrate contempt for the Virginia bill through means that trade on a background of homophobia and misogyny, I’m not sure. Because the point (not saying I was successful, mind you) is to condemn than background.

  27. Nemo, not sure what due diligence doctors perform prior to abortion. But if a fetus was too small to show up on a regular ultrasound (thus requiring a transvaginal ultrasound to take an image of a fetus), it would be very early in pregnancy, far earlier than the time limit for legal abortion.

  28. Roxanne, I would have thought that the time limit for legal abortion isn’t the only consideration before operating. Doesn’t the abortion provider usually want to determine the age more narrowly than that? And what if there’s a mass or obstruction? I’m not a doctor so there must be other possibilities I can’t think of. Do any doctors operate without doing some imaging these days? Maybe so, I have no idea and that’s why I posed the question. As I was thinking about your earlier post I found myself mildly surprised at the idea that a pre-abortion ultrasound (either abdominal or transvaginal depending on what works) is *not* performed as a matter of course in such cases.

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