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Mississippi votes on Personhood, religous philosophy

with 10 comments

We don’t have a religious government, a theocracy, a series of beliefs that are written in law. So what happens if we put a philosophy, or religious belief, to vote? We vote on actions we wish our government to take, but when the question is not rules, not a law, not an action, but just a philosophical statement, what does that mean?. If you believe X vote “yes”. Don’t worry about the rest.

This is the case in the Personhood Amendment vote taking place in Mississippi. The ballot initiative proclaims that human life begins at conception (“The term ‘person’ or ‘persons’ shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization…”). It is the result of the Personhood movement, a national effort to outlaw abortion by creating laws that make the Personhood Philosophy not just  religious or personal philosophy, but the written law of the land. A public ballot initiative will have decided one of the most philosophically complicated questions of humanity: when does life begin?

Personhood would outlaw all abortion, regardless of circumstance. It provides a fertilized egg with the rights of a person, thus making rape or incest cases ineligible for abortion.  There is a logic to it: “ The mother is a victim and there’s no reason to make a victim a murderer.” If abortion is murder, all the time no matter what, then this line of reasoning makes sense. Thus, if this is one’s personal belief, one should push for laws that make all abortion illegal. But that is not what is being done. This amendment does not ban abortion; it says that personhood begins at conception.

The results are greater than outlawing abortion. Personhood provides constitutional rights to fertilized eggs. Fertilized eggs become viable fetuses around 20% of the time, according to Infertility Specialist Randall Hines. Is that a reasonable rule? Every fertilized egg, no matter what, would have equal constitutional protection. But what about the other 80% of the time? Does every potential fertilized egg then carry over into de facto legal protection? If you have unprotected sex, you cannot know by the next morning if you fertilized an egg, so what does that mean? Does that outlaw the morning after pill? Does that mean that IUDs are illegal? Does it outlaw every form of birth control that operates after the act? Are we asking voters to roll back the clock on medical advancement that has truly improved quality of life and the safety of women so that a religious statement can become law?

This is the problem with the Personhood Movement, and the danger of its ballot initiatives: no one knows what happens if it passes. The ballot is just a principle; they are asking the state to make law one groups belief, and whatever the results of legalizing that belief are will be dealt with later. Those results are totally unknown: “no state has ever given an embryo constitutional rights and, legally, it’s not quite clear what happens when you do.” Embryonic stem-cell research is out, one would imagine, given the language of personhood. In vitro fertilization is also in question, given the manner in which the process “results in unused fertilized eggs.”

The primary purpose of the Personhood Amendment is to ban abortion, there is no question about why it exists, and where its purpose lies. But voting on a religious statement, a philosophical statement, has repercussions that are too hard to predict, and the potential for lawmakers to abuse such language is too great. This language is broad, purposefully left open, in order to help it become law. It is a religious statement on a ballot in a religiously conservative state. There is reason to fear  what is possible once that statement is law, but there is also reason to fear the further incremental movement of Christianity into American Law. We shouldn’t pretend that anything else is happening. Sally Quinn makes this clear:

Attorney Brad Prewett, executive director of the “Yes on 26” campaign, was quoted as saying “It’s an opportunity for people to say that we’re made in the image of God.” And the founder of Personhood Mississippi said, “We’re just going to the heart of the matter, which is this: Is this a person or not? God says it is and science has confirmed it.”
There it is. The law of the land, which gives women the right to choose, is being challenged for religious reasons.

Voting on a religious philosophy is frightening business. It goes against the barest readings of the US Constitution. I’m not a voting historian, and I’m not claiming that such votes have never taken place before. And it is clear that if the vote passes, court challenges will result, and the legality of this amendment will be fought over, likely for years, before any legal changes result. It could be thrown out as unconstitutional and no legal ramifications will result.

In either case, the vote itself remains a major development. This is a vote for a simple belief, a heavily religious belief at that.  The Personhood vote is dividing Mississippi, but the expectation is that the Personhood Amendment will pass.  Hopefully Mississippi voters recognize that the results of such an amendment are too unpredictable to allow. As one obstetrician and supporter said of the vote:  “This is a principle. … All of those other details can be worked out.” That’s exactly the problem.

For more:
‘Personhood’ Agenda is Theocracy at Religious Dispatches.
 Mississippi Personhood Law Could Cause Legal Mayhem at HuffPo.
Doctors call Mississippi Personhood initiative dangerous at CBSNews.

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Written by Christopher ZF

November 7, 2011 at 15:49

10 Responses

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  1. Actually, I think this is a vote on science. This is when human life begins. If you disagree (which you do) when do you say it begins? When the baby first breathes? At age of viability (20 weeks)? Obviously this law causes complications, but it is based not on religious feeling or personal belief, but 21st century science.

    redhead in rapid

    November 7, 2011 at 18:02

    • Really?
      I guess I must proclaim my ignorance. Not only was I unaware that there was a scientific consensus that “life begins at conception,” I was also unaware that there was a scientific consensus on what the terms even meant.
      But I am open to being incorrect on this one, and will do my due diligence.

      czfinke

      November 7, 2011 at 19:05

  2. OK, Redhead.

    I spent a few hours doing some research on your query, and formulating what I think about your comment, and have prepared a long response. You asked for it (even if you didn’t).

    1) The idea that this vote is “based not on religious feeling or personal belief, but 21st century science” is preposterous, and I imagine it would be news to the voters of Mississippi. Regardless of what the science says, the point of this vote is religious, not scientific.
    2) Because Personhood is not a scientific concept. Identifying when “life” becomes “a person” is not a question of science, but of religion and philosophy.
    3) Your claim that science has shown that life begins at conception is much more difficult, but I don’t necessarily disagree. But I don’t agree, either. Its just way more complicated than you are giving credit for, because it is science. Having a scientific discussion about life means discussing terms like “life” scientifically. I don’t think the term in this discussion is about plant-life. Life in the conversation means Life, Human life, imbued with Human-ness, if not, then life starts well before the moment of fertilization.
    So the question becomes: What are you talking about when you talk about life? What happens, literally, when you say that at fertilization, the moment sperm meets egg, Life happens? Are not the sperm and the egg imbued with life? This idea of “life” seems to create the hurdle for science. Again, what is the distinction: are we talking about unique human life or biologically alive? For a scientific discussion, I can see it only as a term used to understand the relationship and actions of gametes post-coitus joining up and forming a zygote. Is that zygote alive, according to scientific consensus? It is certainly alive. Is it Life, in the Human Life sense that this conversation is all about? I don’t think it is. So when is it? Does it become a human life after the fifth day when the zygote becomes a blastocyst? Or does life start when the blastocyst becomes an embryo? All of those things are alive, is that what we are talking about? If the moment of the formation of the zygote is the moment of human life, are each of the gametes that form the zygote .5 human life? If one says that the moment two gametes join to become a zygote is literally the actual conception point of life, I do not think we are talking about science. Unless folks have shown that there is a biological distinction between gamete and zygote that is great enough to classify that distinction as alive in the sense that we term it “life”, not just alive like, you know, a plant. All this to say…
    4) I don’t know when “life” begins. It’s all life and its all connected. This is why I love Whitman and the Transcendentalists and Theoretical Physics. Everything is always alive and everything is connected to everything else. I don’t think such concepts can break down to statements like: life begins at conception. But here’s something I like, written by a blogger and biology prof at UM-Morris whose writing, acerbic an atheist and antagonizing as it can be, I very much enjoy. “It is absurd to talk about a life beginning at conception because it didn’t begin then: the precursors to the zygote were also alive. The only “beginning” of life that we could talk about occurred a few billion years ago, and even that wasn’t discrete, but the product of a gradual progression from chemical replicator to functioning cell, a cline upon which there was no point where one could say that everything before was dead, and everything after was alive. Life is a very fuzzy concept.” (http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2009/03/the_fertilized_egg_is_not_a_hu.php)

    It’s all life. Before conception and conception and after we die. Walt Whitman said it best, when talking not about birth but about death:

    “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
    If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.”

    5) Back to civics: I don’t think voting on subjects like this are practical, or appropriate. Even if I’m wrong, and there is overwhelming scientific consensus that life begins at conception, why are we voting on this? Do we now vote that scientific statements should be in the constitution? Because I’d like to get Evolution on the record, as well as Climate Change. But science isn’t law and policy; instead, it should inform good law and policy.

    czfinke

    November 8, 2011 at 10:02

    • also, Redhead:
      when i said: “Its just way more complicated than you are giving credit for, because it is science”, I did not mean to imply that you do not think the science is complicated, only that statements such as in your comment “this is when human life begins” do not betray the complexity.

      czfinke

      November 8, 2011 at 10:43

      • Was I being over the top? Double-exclamation point YES!! BUT I do think that the pro-choice folks generally sweep this problem of “the beginning at life” under the rug. Perhaps his law is preposterous, and my bias is to say that any law from MS is a bit odd, but the issues it addresses are serious. When the Supreme Court nationalized abortion in Roe vs. Wade, it didn’t deal with these complex and significant issues. Life begins at some point and at some point that human life has rights. It’s easy to make jokes about the folks in MS and laugh at the frozen embryos voting, but at least they are trying to tackle issue. Too often pro-choicers say it isn’t an issue and we should have abortion on demand.

        Though I was being over the top, my questions were serious. As something who believes in abortion, what should be the limits? Is it time? What if a child has a disease and we find out at 24 weeks (viable) can we still abort? Or if we find out it is a girl, still abort? I’m not trying to spring a trap–I’m really interested in your thoughts on this.

        Now, onto your points.
        (1) You are right in the general sense that voters aren’t thinking science. But on the main point, you can scientifically claim that life begins at conception and then structure laws around that claim. It also points out how hazy science can be at times..
        (2) You are right, science has significant limits. It can inform the decision, but “it” can’t settle the decision (e.g., the fact that babies can survive after 22 weeks of gestation changes our understanding of abortions through the whole pregnancy). However, you make “personal belief” or “religious conviction” sound so week. As if because it is personal, than it can’t be public.
        (3) You are right, it is complicated. (digression here, there is a great RadioLab on Sperm from 2008 or so. Go listen to it, it touches on this point). But begin complicated doesn’t mean we throw up our arms and say, blah, abortions through all 40 weeks.
        (4) Again true in the most abstract sense. But we need to make a decision here and you have to put your cards on the table and say, “this is when life begins.”
        (5) Civics, it all comes back to 9th grade civics. We are voting on this because the Supreme Court stupidly short circuited the democratic and federal system. This is a way to try to get around that dumb decision (and it is dumb, even if you think abortion should be legal. It threw our whole federal/state system out of whack and led to a massive backlash against out of control judges). Really, they should overturn that position and let states decide what they want to do.

        two cents.

        redhead in rapid

        November 8, 2011 at 12:38

  3. Much to respond to, but quickly I want to say that my intention is not to make “personal belief” or “religious conviction” sound weak.
    Rather, it is to point out that these are personal beliefs and religious convictions, and not scientific arguments. Of course these can be strong, and public, and correct and true and good. But just call them what they are: personal beliefs and religious convictions.

    (this has become a point of increasing contention for me, springing from my job)

    Also. I take this issue seriously, and think most people do.

    czfinke

    November 8, 2011 at 12:51

  4. Also, Nate, given the discussion we are having, I think your working in this sentence is a bit…what…: “As something who believes in abortion, what should be the limits? Is it time?” That would seem to remove my own personhood…

    Anyway. Though I do not know the answer to that question, I really don’t think anyone in the pro-choice movement is throwing up their arms, saying blah, and arguing for abortion through all 40 weeks. That’s the same callousness as claiming the pro-choice side mocks Mississippi voters and then doesn’t take the argument seriously. the reason this is such a controversy is that people take the battle of abortion rights very very seriously.
    TRC is not making jokes about the people in Mississippi, or the frozen embryos. All i’m doing is looking at the science to try to see if a scientific consensus shows that life begins at conception exists, because that is what the Personhood movement claims. And if that is incorrect, that should be made known.

    in my opinion, one cannot say: this moment (conception, fertilization, etc) is the moment when human life begins. that just doesn’t hold up for me as a scientific claim.

    czfinke

    November 8, 2011 at 15:13

  5. Well, let me put forth the argument that hasn’t explicitly come up yet in this particular discussion: precisely because beliefs about morality of abortion are personal or religious in nature, and because of the variance in personal beliefs and the situation/context around each potential abortion, perhaps the legal policy should err on the side of being slightly more accommodating, and let individuals decide what is morally appropriate for them?

    Science can inform our beliefs and our public policy, but because we’re dealing with a spectrum of beliefs, it matters not whether that line is drawn arbitrarily at, say, 20 weeks, for example, or at a point with scientific significance, such as conception, viability, or birth.

    How would we apply other lawmaking approaches in a similar situation where the public views are very broad, but there’s little or no direct (measurable? quantifiable?) downside to society? Do we draw the line at the point where 50% of people say a given activity should be illegal? 75%?

    Evan

    November 9, 2011 at 02:25

  6. An excellent point, Evan. But such a compromising stance still always be unacceptable. I struggle with lawmaking resulting from popular votes in general. On this or any issue. What is right is not always what is the popular opinion. Regardless of what I, or anyone else, thinks of our beliefs.

    There is certainly a spectrum of belief, hopefully influenced by science, but regardless, a spectrum that must be taken into account when making policy about sensitive issues. And for the most part, I think the US does a very good job of navigating the differences of opinions and beliefs.

    It just doesn’t translate over to the abortion argument. And maybe it shouldn’t, I don’t know.

    czfinke

    November 9, 2011 at 09:43

  7. I think that’s fine if you view abortion as a 1 person decision. But (and this is where we disagree) someone is being aborted. It ain’t just cells, but a person. So to say we are going to leave it up to the individual is morally obtuse.

    redhead in rapid

    November 9, 2011 at 10:22


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