Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Mississippians are voting on "personhood."

That's right. Today, the people of Mississippi get to cast ballots on a proposed state constitutional amendment that would

define personhood as "every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof."

Recent polling suggests that the amendment will pass. [UPDATE: the amendment was actually voted down on Tuesday.] Meanwhile people are (naturally) arguing over the issue, especially the reality that this is not legislation, but rather the spring board for future, unknown legislation--with this unknown-factor raising the suspicion of pro-choice voters and some calls for caution among politicians and some in the pro-life camp.

First, let me say up front that I am pro-life. I don't just mean 'anti-abortion' here: I'm against war, the death penalty, abortion, or anything else that amounts to government sanctioned killing. When I read the arguments of one pro-choice woman in MS, quoted throughout the CNN article, who advocates "the ability of families to make the choices they want with their doctors," I am almost entirely unmoved. Our American obsession with choices does not give us license to kill. Period. In my mind, the pro-life voice in the article has the much stronger position, countering that this is a human right issue and complaining of the contradictions in a state constitution that supports abortion but prosecutes for "fetal homicide" resulting from an assault on a pregnant woman.

Nevertheless, I see a couple of serious problems in this picture.

First, democracy, the voting public, does not have the authority to decide these questions. That's insanity. I've posted this quote from Cicero on the wardrobe before, but I think it bears repeating:
If it were possible to constitute right simply by the commands of the people... then all that would be necessary in order to make robbery, adultery, or the falsification of wills right and just would be a vote of the multitude.

This ancient Roman statesman saw the problem clearly enough. "The right" is not subject to a vote.

Cicero goes on to object further that the such a vote would subject truth to "the behest of the foolish." I don't intend to make any comment on how educated the voting public in the United States is, but I can say this: I have my high school diploma, a bachelor's degree, and am nearly done working on my master's, and I don't think that I personally have any right to vote on such an issue. There is no shared foundation of beliefs in our culture that can be drawn upon to answer the question the people of Mississippi are being asked. This is the second problem. Biologically, we know what a fetus is, and we know what a human being is, but there's absolutely nothing in biology to tell us whether a fetus ought to be called human. Philosophically and religiously the US certainly lacks the kind of coherence that you would need to answer this kind of existential question. Perhaps the question could have been settled a few centuries ago, when American thinkers could agree that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights," but today the nation cannot agree on any 'self-evident truths' upon which to base these sorts of claims.

This is no less true for Christians. As a Christian, I can voice a strong opposition to abortion; I'm convinced that it conflicts with the teachings of Christ and the scriptures more broadly, as well as two thousand years of Christian thought and practice.* Yet even Christians share no consensus on the question of whether life begins at conception or not. This vote is leaving the issue at the mercy of individual whims and opinions, which is no way to handle such an important question.

So, while I am eager to broach the crucial human rights issue of abortion, I'm not comfortable with what's happening in Mississippi today. Even if the amendment passes--a clear victory for the pro-life movement there--I think we are looking at a defeat. This places a power in the hands of voters that isn't theirs to wield, and such a proposed amendment (proposed by a "nonprofit Christian ministry") assumes an easy answer is available to a question that I don't see how anyone, besides a Roman Catholic, can answer either easily or definitively.

There must be a better way to go about this.

* For a powerful example from Christian tradition, consider the words of the early Church writer Tertullian (c. 160- c. 240):
With us, murder is forbidden once for all. We are not permitted to destroy even the fetus in the womb, as long as blood is still being drawn to form a human being. To prevent the birth of a child is a quicker way to murder. It makes no difference whether one destroys a soul already born or interferes with its coming to birth. It is a human being and one who is to be a man, for the whole fruit is already present in the seed.

Apology 9.8

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