By John Stang
Mississippi’s so called “personhood amendment” defining conception as the starting point for human life was roundly defeated on Tuesday night, which surprised a lot people due to its slight popularity the polls a few days before the election. Even if a person is “Pro-life,” the amendment was legally very troubling. For instance, could someone give their house in a will to a fetus? What if a women drinks during a pregnancy and kills the fetus, is that murder? It’s all technical, but to the advocates, these questions don’t matter. The Economist writes:
Those concerns were well-founded: the initiative’s wording was vague and its actual,real-world effects uncertain. To supporters like Richard Land, however, such concerns “completely miss the point of this ballot initiative”. They “focus on the details…[while] the ballot initiative focuses on the basic moral principle that embryos are unique, never to be duplicated human beings from the moment of fertilisation onward and that civilized societies do not allow them to be dismembered and destroyed at will.” Let’s look first at that last clause. Mississippi is already one of the most difficult places for a woman to obtain an abortion. The notion that opposing the personhood amendment is tantamount to dismembering and destroying babies at will is grossly unfair not merely to supporters of abortion rights, but to Mississippians who may support the bill’s fundamental objective of outlawing abortion but were nervous about the measure’s actual effects. Secondly, call me a baby-dismembering secular-humanist commie, but asking voters to support a law without “focus[ing] on the details” is the height of civic irresponsibility. To do so is, in effect, is to turn them into a flock of sheep rather than an informed citizenry. It is to ask voters to do what you tell them to do but not to think too much about it. It is a fundamentally anti-democratic impulse, and if I had to guess a reason why Mississippi’s largely conservative, Christian voters rejected an amendment whose ultimate intent they likely support, it is precisely because voting for it requires too much not-thinking.
Exactly! Ignoring technical questions and focusing on just larger moral questions leads down a road of ugly populism. The crux of policymaking should be about the legality of a bill and its larger implications for domestic policy. Broad moral considerations are necessary for establishing a framework. However, broader ethical judgments should not be the only consideration.
On a different note, I also find this strategy off putting because it puts the focus of the debate into the category of human rights. In the mind of the people who support this measure, an abortion is one of ultimate evil because it takes another human life. Stepping into a Planned Parenthood clinic is put in the same category as a genocidal dictator killing his own people, if we think in terms of human rights abuses. To some conservatives, though not all, women who get abortions treat it like a normal routine and think little about it, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Should we have moral discussions about this issue? Certainly, the topic is a very complex one and, if you are strongly religious, this question gets even trickier. Although, when one side talks about it in “all or nothing” genocidal terms, the debate is stymied. Getting an abortion is not the same as living in North Korea or Somalia, and frankly treating the debate as such is insulting to real victims of human rights abuses.
Update: Slate’s XX Factor blog has a post discussing all the different labels in the abortion debate, explaining why some skittishness for not totally supporting the “Pro-life” position.