The ‘Personhood’ Fight is Not Going Away

The Mississippi vote on Prop 26 may be over, but this battle will continue

  • Share
  • Read Later
Rogelio V. Solis / AP

Dr. Beverly McMillan, president of Pro-Life Mississippi, left, thanks supporters at a prayer rally in Jackson, Miss., for their support on efforts to get a proposed "personhood" constitutional amendment offered to voters, June 6, 2011.

These days I find myself gazing at the headlines as if I were reading the night sky, looking at the twinkling stars in wonder. There, in the northern sky, could that be Minerva, the virgin goddess of wisdom — and magic? No, it is Gloria Allred, flanked by an avenging and righteous accuser, descending on Herman Cain. Note that he is quick to flash the victim card when it comes to his own troubles. Victim of the media! Victim of Troubled Women! Victim of the Democratic Machine! And there in the northern sky, somewhere over Minnesota, is the warlike Juno, goddess of marriage, hurling thunderbolts at Kim Kardashian’s planet E! How dare you make a mockery of marriage! Take that! Your ratings will crumble! And there, in the southern quadrant, is the goddess of birth (to say nothing of hunting,) Diana, hovering over Mississippi, looking perplexed and not sure whether to weep or rage.

Voters in Mississippi defeated Proposition 26, the Personhood Proposition, but it will return; its backers tried twice in Colorado before moving into the deep South, assuming they would fare better in the Bible Belt. Pragmatism took the day. Yet the national conversation that was triggered by this radical proposal was instructive. The issue of when life begins, and how much control over a woman’s body the government should have, and how a society weighs the value of one against the other, is of such profound importance that it should be constantly revisited — at the risk of provoking outrage.

The controversial rule was meant to alter the state constitution of Mississippi by redefining the status of a “person” to begin at the moment of fertilization, thus according all legal rights to fertilized eggs. The wording of the proposition essentially defines a fertilized egg as a human being and then goes on to say that all human beings are to be accorded legal personhood. Mississippi gubernatorial candidates from both major parties support the amendment.

(MORE: Mississippi’s Choice: Personhood and the Rights of Zygotes)

Prop 26 proposed a radical alteration of the legislative and moral landscape. Abortion — regardless of the circumstances of conception — would be criminalized. Cloning would be illegal. IUDs and all other birth control that operates post-conception, such as morning-after pills, could become illegal. IVF treatments for women unable to conceive otherwise could become illegal because of the fertilized eggs that are not implanted but discarded. Criminal investigations could be opened in the case of miscarriages. To take this to its logical, but absurd, end: most fertilized eggs never implant in the uterus and could never become people; a woman could be held responsible for simply shedding fertilized eggs in the normal course of an active sex life.

Proponents of Prop 26 say all this is irrelevant. What matters is establishing a clear, hard and fast rule as to when a human being comes to life.

But is that possible? It is one thing to value an unborn life; quite another to push that value to such a radical extent that the blastula, a hollow sphere of cells early in embryonic development, would have equivalent rights to a teenager. And those rights would override the right of a woman to control her body — or even her own right to life, should the pregnancy endanger her. But the question of when a fetus becomes a person has long been confusing — even distressing. In removing a blastula, you are indeed destroying something, but what exactly — a potential life? When does killing become murder?

Roe v. Wade did not lay out specifics as to the viability of a fetus — the age at which it is able to live outside the womb, even with aid — and the frontier of life has shifted as medical technology has been refined. Thirty-six states ban late-term, or partial-birth, abortions. Anyone spending a mere 10 minutes in a neonatal ward has seen the extraordinary lengths to which doctors and parents will go to save the life of a child born prematurely. Five years ago, a child was born in Miami after 21 weeks and six days in the womb, an age that was never before considered viable.

In one of those weird karmic twists, not that long ago California was voting on its own oil-industry funded Prop 26, which threatened funding for environmental protections. Under a ruling like Mississippi’s Prop 26, it is conceivable that criminal action could be taken against people who harm fetal life by introducing chemicals, like BPA, or mercury in air pollution, into the fetal environment — and this could include polluters or mothers who eat tuna fish while pregnant, knowing it is contaminated with mercury. As in any radical legislation, the potential implications are limitless.

(MORE: Good Laws Make Good Neighbors)

This battle isn’t going to go away: Several other states, including Ohio and Florida, have similar initiatives in the works, and Oregon, Nevada, Montana and California might be next. It is always useful for a society to examine awe-inspiring and fundamental questions. But I have to wonder — just like we feminists did way back in the ’70s — if anything like Prop 26 would be remotely possible if men were the ones carrying unwanted pregnancies?