Friday, November 11, 2011

Abortion, Mississippi, and Personhood

One of the more surprising outcomes from this week's electoral event was the solid defeat of the "Personhood" amendment in Mississippi.   That amendment, in the event that you're not aware of it, would have changed the Constitution of the Magnolia State to include the following language:
"The term person or persons shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the functional equivalent thereof."
The purpose of that amendment was simple.  If a human being becomes a person at the moment of fertilization, then abortion involves terminating the life of a person.  If that is the case, then abortion is not permissible under any circumstances, as it would be killing a person in the eyes of the law.  That approach reinforces the understanding, commonly presented in anti-abortion circles, that any murder.

That's a great rallying cry, a marvelously Alinskian way to motivate and stir the passions of a movement.  The primary problem with it, of course, is that it has no connection to reality.  It is an axiom utterly ungrounded in both human biology and the ethics of Scripture.  I say this as someone who does not embrace abortion as a means of birth control.  Abortion is plain ol' kind of horrible.  My views on it reflect what I see to be the actuality of abortion, which is that it exists in a difficult area of ethical greyscale.   The application of a binary worldview to this issue is both misguided and destructive.  Sure, it's easy.  But some things are just hard.

From a biological standpoint, fertilization can hardly be considered the moment at which life qua life begins.  The joining of egg and sperm does begin *something*, but having actually taken biology coursework, I know that this *something* very often amounts to nothing.

Damaged or non-viable embryos typically self-abort.  Many years ago, my wife and I went through this when we were trying to conceive for the first time.  She had an early miscarriage while we were on vacation, and while it was really no fun at all, we didn't feel we'd lost a child.   "Missed Abortions," as they are called, are surprisingly common.  They are completely different than a late term miscarriage, which is a wholly different and far more tragic thing.

But according to the axiom of the personhood supporters, there is no difference.  Allowing for difference would require watering down the rhetoric.  Unfortunately, sticking with that rhetoric and codifying it into law means that many common means of birth control (the pill, IUDs) would be impacted, as would many of the techniques medical science has developed to help couples overcome infertility.

Mississippi, even though it is deeply and essentially conservative, was able to see through the falseness of that reflexive and dualistic approach to being a person.

What's interesting to me here is that in refusing to support this amendment, Bible-Belt Mississippi has actually taken the Biblical road on the subject.  The ethics of Torah, Wisdom and the Prophets do not assume personhood for an early term embryo, but instead assume that it inhabits an in-between-place.  The Bible indicates that it is not nothing, to be thrown out or discarded without a thought.  But neither is it fully human, as you or I are human.

Rhetoric that argues otherwise cannot claim to be Biblical.  I'm not sure if that makes its way into most Mississippi sermons, unless its the one on the last Sunday before the pastor is encouraged to consider a career in retail.

But perhaps the practical wisdom of a conservative people means a significant majority get it anyway.