Of morality and politics

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What if “the most extreme in a field of extreme anti-abortion measures” wasn’t an anti-abortion measure at all? Here it is:

“The term ‘person’ or ‘persons’ shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.”

That statutory definition, in the form of Proposition 26, a constitutional “personhood amendment” on the ballot in Mississippi, is creating a firestorm of controversy. Its opponents call it the most extreme anti-abortion measure in the country, and the New York Times news story tells us the amendment “would ban virtually all abortions, including those resulting from rape and incest,” would “bar some birth control methods, including IUD’s and ‘morning after pills,’” and would “outlaw the destruction of embryos created in laboratories.”

Funny, I just read the entirety of the amendment — so did you — and I didn’t see the words ban, bar or outlaw. Or the words abortion, birth control or embryo.

Indeed, The Times itself says that this approach — granting legal rights to embryos — is “fundamentally different” from abortion restrictions that have been adopted by states. It is fundamentally different from prior restrictions because it is not a restriction at all, but an expansion. And precisely because it is an expansion, it has a real chance of passing in a socially conservative state like Mississippi, where gubernatorial candidates in both major parties support its passage.

(Before you object a priori to the notion of granting legal rights to embryos, remember that there is precedent in the granting of legal rights to the unborn — namely the eggs of bald eagles and the unborn offspring of a host of other protected species. And this at great human expense and inconvenience. Or is it the case that endangerment is a necessary criteria in the banning of abortion?)

Despite the fact that the amendment is merely an expansion of human rights, opponents (including the Times reporter, presumably) must describe the measure in negative terms.

And that is precisely the genius of the amendment. The pro-life/anti-abortion movement has always fought a battle of definitions, and the personhood amendment strikes at the most central of definitions, namely, what it means to be a human person. It is a most simple statement of the foundational moral principle of the pro-life position: Human life begins at conception. If this is true — and a range of genetic, medical and diagnostic advances make it increasingly difficult to pinpoint the beginning of life anywhere else — there is no need to enact any other law, for human persons are already abundantly protected by standing law. Personhood amendments shift the debate and try to force abortion supporters to deny that the unborn are live human persons.

The strengths of this new political approach are manifest. The amendment simply states what is becoming increasingly clear. That child seen on the screen — sucking its thumb and doing back flips in its mother’s womb — is more than a blob of tissue, or a clump of cells. It is beyond belief that this newly minted life might be the most precious hope of parental aspirations, or mere medical waste, depending merely on the whim of one or both of its parents. Using viability outside the womb to determine the worth of life is a fool’s errand. Viability is increasingly beyond the competence of most doctors to determine, to say nothing of lawyers or judges, and in utero surgical procedures abound. Furthermore, bound up in the genetic makeup of that fertilized egg from the moment of conception is a lifetime of experiences, loves and heartaches. Why else would desperate parents bid top dollar for most precious arrangements of DNA?

But these strengths are at the same time the personhood amendment’s greatest political weakness. Our current reproductive policies and practices are so radically arrayed against the fact of human life at fertilization, that stating that fact out loud, in a legally binding way, is a most extreme proposal, bringing down an intricately constructed house of cards supported by foe and friend alike.

Which is why the heavy hitters in the abortion debate — including National Right to Life and the Roman Catholic bishops — are sitting this one out, refusing to promote the personhood amendment. Bishop Joseph Latino of Jackson, Mississippi has stated that the Roman Catholic Church does not support Proposition 26, because “it could harm our efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade.” Others echo the bishop, noting that it is an “utterly futile” attempt to protect unborn life that could result in the Supreme Court writing an “even more extreme abortion policy.” Other pro-life groups including the American Family Association and Family Research Council support the measure, reflecting longstanding rifts within the pro-life movement between incrementalist and absolutist approaches to opposing Roe v. Wade.

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This political practicality of the personhood amendment raises an important and often neglected issue lurking in the weeds of the most contentious social issues of our time, namely, the difference between moral and political truth.

It is doubtless true that the act of governing is a fundamentally moral act. All policy is shaped by our sense of right and wrong, and in turn shapes the moral sensibility and character of its citizenry. It is impossible for Christians, or atheists or moon worshipers to leave their moral imperatives behind when they enter the legislative chamber, nor should they aspire to.

Yet the most simple and fundamental moral truths are often impossible to legislate simply. Genesis 9:6 comes to mind: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” Legal codes spanning the world condemn the taking of human life, while at the same time pardoning and even condoning it by degrees of circumstance and intentionality and the laws of war. Is it wrong to take a human life? It depends.

Politics is the art of the possible, but in a fallen world, morality is the art of the impossible. Often the pro-life movement fails to grasp this distinction. The biblical mandate that forbids a believer to abort a human life — crystal clear to many — is not the same as a biblical mandate to make said abortion illegal. This distinction is anathema in our hyper-politicized age, but the New Testament is conspicuously lacking in legislative or policy proposals.

Might it be better if our polity would define the unborn as persons with full legal protections, carving out necessary exceptions for the taking of that life even as we have for the taking of adult human life? Perhaps. Can we get there from here? It depends.

Dr. Brian Lee is the pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Washington, D.C. He formerly worked as a communications director both on Capitol Hill and at the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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