Thursday, October 27, 2011

Personhood Movement Has Heart; but Brains?

Is it kneejerk Christianity?

Or a promising new strategy to help repeal Roe v. Wade?

On November 8, voters in Mississippi will be deciding whether to change the state's constitution to make abortion illegal. Or at least, that's what pro-choice advocates fear.

Many pro-life advocates, on the other hand, have rallied around the efforts of Colorado-based Personhood USA to re-write Mississippi's constitutional definition of a person, which would then afford fertilized eggs the same rights as human beings outside the womb.

To be specific, Proposition 26, the legal tool crafted by Personhood USA, would define "person" in Article 111 of Mississippi's state constitution to include “every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.”

Which on first reading, sounds like a no-brainer for pro-lifers to support.

But should we?

Prop 26's Good Intentions

No greater foes in the abortion debate than the National Right to Life and Planned Parenthood both oppose Prop 26, as it's called.

Granted, we all know why Planned Parenthood opposes it: they oppose every legal attempt at ending the heinous murder of unborn children. But why does the National Right to Life campaign oppose what should be a slam-dunk home-run Hail Mary pass through the legislative uprights?

Mostly because the federal legislation stemming from Roe v. Wade will still override the Mississippi legislation, should it pass. Which means that even though there's only one abortion mill currently operating in the state, it will be able to obtain legal permission to remain open as pro-choice lawyers take their inevitable challenges to Prop 26 through the appeals process. Maybe even all the way to the Supreme Court.

And what will happen there? You tell me: in what direction is the high court heading these days, with President Barak Obama having already appointed two liberal justices, with another one or two who could arrange their retirements before his term ends next year?

Isn't there a significant risk that not only Prop 26 could be ruled unconstitutional, but further tweaking of privacy laws - the basis for Roe v. Wade's success - could be done in the process? Couldn't this undermine the efforts of groups like the National Right to Life and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, another major pro-life group opposing Prop 26?

Critical Weakness of the Personhood Movement

Personally, I'm not sure science can support the legal assertion made by Prop 26 supporters that in the context of the womb, life equals a person.

Please read this carefully. I don't deny that a fertilized egg is the start of life. But science has proven that there's a period of 24 to 28 weeks in which the fertilized egg is unviable outside of the womb.  Although I agree that life exists during that time, and that intentionally ending it is murder, I'm not convinced that we can prove in a court of law that the unviable life has the same intrinsic characteristics as life which can be sustained outside the womb, which can be legally proven to be a person.

Remember, we can't legislate morality; pro-lifers need to have facts when crafting legislation. Although their intentions are honorable, couldn't the folks at Personhood USA come up with a ballot initiative featuring greater legislative integrity? Simply having a majority of Mississippi voters approve Prop 26 - which appears likely - doesn't change science's ability to affirm what they want to believe. This is why I worry it's all just kneejerk Christianity - seeing a problem, and figuring some good-sounding law will fix it.

Good Intentions, Yes, but Sloppy Execution

In addition, I'm a little frustrated by some of the ways Personhood USA has attempted to refute criticisms of Prop 26 by pro-abortion groups.

For example, advocates for the amendment say that contrary to claims by Planned Parenthood, Prop 26 will not outlaw birth control pills. Which is technically correct. In fact, it doesn't even specifically outlaw abortion. What it does is attempt to define what "personhood" is, with the implication being that any attempt at ending that personhood is murder, which of course, is illegal.

In another example of misleading advertising, Prop 26 advocates say that in the extreme event the life of the birth mother is at risk, the amendment won't prevent doctors from saving the mother's life at the expense of an "unviable" baby. But that does not address any case where the baby could have as great a survival expectancy as its mother, but only one of them will survive the pregnancy. In this age of medical malpractice run amok, how many doctors will assume the risk of determining the standard of unviability set cryptically by Prop 26?

So, while I support the objective advocated by Personhood USA, I'm nonetheless convinced that pro-life advocates must be above reproach when we address our opposition. This applies not only in the wording we use to defend our position, but in the legislation we craft to protect life.

Tough Call

Which brings us back to whether or not Prop 26 is really a good idea. Is taking a drastic stand against abortion, despite its wobbly legal legs, worth it in the long run? Should evangelicals be listening harder to the reasons why such hardworking and dedicated pro-life groups as National Right to Life and the Conference of Catholic Bishops think Prop 26 is a bad idea?

Between the time it takes Prop 26 to hit the books in Mississippi, and an appeals court to put it on hold, perhaps a few lives may be spared. That's a good thing, and some pro-life advocates may claim it justifies the entire effort.

But if it ends up undermining more cumbersome yet effective strategies for further criminalizing abortion across the United States, will we have won the battle, but lost the war?

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