Of morality and politics

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?