Anyone still unclear about the faith-based impetus of abortion bans should consider that, at a recent news conference, advocates of the so-called “personhood” measure broke out singing “Onward, Christian Soldiers” (as reported by the Denver Daily News). The proposal would grant full legal rights to fertilized eggs, banning abortion and any other action that could harm a zygote or embryo, with the possible exception of procedures to save a pregnant woman’s life.
As I noted earlier today, the “personhood” measure seems to be in trouble, as the number of certified signatures will likely fall below the required minimum. As the News also points out, the number of signatures collected this year is nearly forty percent lower than the number collected in 2008. Wendy Norris notes that this year’s news conference attracted only around twenty-five participants, a third of the 2008 showing. (Meanwhile, Norris reports, infighting has overtaken a national group supportive of the “personhood” drive.) While such internal struggles are good news to those favoring legal sanity and reproductive rights, the movement remains a potent threat, and one that must be fought on ideological grounds.
Obviously, the “personhood” movement is grounded in sectarian, religious faith. The purpose of the group is to impose sectarian beliefs by political force. (We will properly leave aside the fact that the Christian Bible does not actually demand abortion bans.)
Norris offers additional detail about the news conference. Gualberto Garcia Jones, one of the measure’s main supporters, referred to advocates of the measure as an “army of faithful pro-life warriors.” Leslie Hanks, another speaker at the conference, “thanked Focus on the Family Founder Dr. James Dobson.” Hanks also recognized the Reverend Bob Enyart, who has advocated the death penalty for doctors and women who facilitate or obtain an abortion once the practice is outlawed (see page 16, note 1; see also Enyart’s YouTube video on the matter, in which Enyart also advocates the death penalty for adultery).
As Westword reports, Keith Mason, spokesman for Personhood USA, has no intention of giving up: “we’re going to keep fighting until we win.”
Ironically, Personhood USA’s own media release makes no mention of the group’s faith-based roots. That did not cause Christian News Wire, “the nation’s leading distributor of religious press releases,” from suffering any confusion on the point.
Though the advocates of the measure clearly want to ban abortion because they believe such is the will of God, their formal arguments make scant reference to sectarian beliefs, for two reasons. First, the organizers want to potentially appeal to those of different worldviews, including other Christians who doubt their religion demands a ban on abortion. Second, the organizers are aware that strictly faith-based arguments likely would not withstand judicial scrutiny, which is why, for instance, advocates of “Intelligent Design” in tax-funded schools tried to distance their arguments from their sectarian origins.
Regardless of the motives behind the measure, its critics must defeat the arguments made in the proposal’s favor, even when those arguments are merely pretext for a sectarian purpose.
Diana Hsieh and I thoroughly critiqued the “personhood” measure in our 2008 paper, Amendment 48 Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters That a Fertilized Egg Is Not a Person. Here it is worth pointing out the textual change of the measure as well as some of the bad arguments that continue to be made in the proposal’s favor.
The 2008 measure stated, “As used in sections 3, 6, and 25 of Article II of the state constitution, the terms ‘person’ or ‘persons’ shall include any human being from the moment of fertilization.” Those other sections pertain to rights to life, liberty, property, equality of justice, and due process of law.
The 2010 proposal changes the language: “As used in sections 3, 6, and 25 of Article II of the state constitution, the term ‘person’ shall apply to every human being from the beginning of the biological development of that human being.”
Why the change? Mason explains to Westword:
The differences between this year’s amendment and its 2008 predecessor “are minor,” Mason concedes. “There’s a slight change in the language. Now it says a person is a human being ‘from the beginning of the biological development of that human being’ in lieu of ‘from the moment of fertilization.'”
He credits this change to Dianne Irving, a faculty member at Georgetown University: “She felt using the term ‘biological beginning’ was more inclusive and would include all babies—even test tube babies. And that’s our goal—to protect every human.”
In other words, the language was changed to make the measure even broader. Its advocates want the measure to do everything the 2008 language would have done, plus protect non-fertilized zygotes potentially created through cloning.
Ironically, though, the change in language could actually give the courts (so long as they are not overrun by religious zealots) license to interpret the measure less broadly, not more. The courts could define a “human being” as starting its “biological development” from birth. While the implications of the 2008 language were anything but clear, at least that language unambiguously referred to “fertilization.” The new language is by one natural interpretation essentially a tautology: something is a human being from the moment it is a human being. But when something becomes a “human being” in the sense of personhood is precisely the issue in question.
This definitional problem points to a fundamental error made by those advocating the “personhood” measure. As Diana Hsieh and I wrote in 2008:
[T]he advocates of Amendment 48 depend on an equivocation on “human being” to make their case. A fertilized egg is human, in the sense that it contains human DNA. It is also a “being,” in the sense that it is an entity. That’s also true of a gallbladder: it is human and it is an entity. Yet that doesn’t make your gallbladder a human person with the right to life. Similarly, the fact that an embryo is biologically a human entity is not grounds for claiming that it’s a human person with a right to life. Calling a fertilized egg a “human being” is word-play intended to obscure the vast biological differences between a fertilized egg traveling down a woman’s fallopian tube and a born infant sleeping in a crib. It is intended to obscure the fact that anti-abortion crusaders base their views on scripture and authority, not science.
No doubt the advocates of the proposal will seek to argue that “the beginning of the biological development of that human being” (normally) refers to the moment of fertilization. Those advocates have made it abundantly clear that their long-term goal is to elect sectarian politicians who will appoint sectarian judges who will interpret the “personhood” measure to grant full legal rights to fertilized eggs. In the meantime, however, if the “personhood” measure were passed, it would generate years of expensive and unresolved legal wars.
At least the advocates of the measure are clear that they do in fact want to ban abortion from the moment of conception. Garcia-Jones said, “The point of what we’re trying to do, just for everyone who thinks we’re trying to be sneaky, we’re trying to end abortion.” The group’s web page states:“The goal is very simple, END ABORTION NOW by protecting all innocent human life from the beginning of biological development.” The same page clearly counts fertilized eggs as “human beings.”
Unfortunately, one consequence of the measure’s language change will be to further confuse many voters about the intent and implications of the measure. While the advocates of the measure want to equate the moment of fertilization with the beginning of a human being, in the full sense of personhood with all the legal rights of a born infant, many voters will understandably think the measure means something else. If the measure were to pass and land in court, perhaps lawyers would drag in voters from 2010 to testify about the various interpretations given the measure.
Another variant of the group’s equivocation is its use of the phrase, “preborn baby,” invoked by Garcia-Jones in the group’s recent media release. Ordinarily a “baby” means a born infant. However, often a pregnant woman will refer to her fetus as a “baby” as well. But merely using the same word to refer to a fertilized egg, a fetus, and a born infant does not make them equivalent. Again the advocates of the “personhood” measure rely on word games, rather than arguments, to “prove” that a fertilized egg should be granted the full legal rights of a born infant.
I’ll have more to say about the claims of the “personhood” crusaders in a subsequent post. The critical point here is that the advocates of the “personhood” measure are motivated by sectarian faith, and they wish to impose their sectarian beliefs on the rest of us by political force. The non-sectarian arguments they offer are extremely weak, amounting to little more than word games intended to disguise the fundamentally sectarian nature of their cause. That cause should be rejected accordingly.