Wednesday, November 02, 2011

What Constitutes Personhood?

This past August, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney got a lot of heat for his assertion that “corporations are people, too” while speaking at an Iowa State Fair.  The audience did not appreciate this millionaire’s personification of corporations; I didn't either.

Now, the idea of what constitutes personhood is coming from another familiar quarter.  Some segments of the anti-choice movement – which has been trying to reverse the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in 1973 –  is trying to redefine personhood in their effort to re-criminalize abortion.

As reported in the New York Times on October 25th:  “A constitutional amendment facing voters in Mississippi on Nov. 8, and similar initiatives brewing in half a dozen other states including Florida and Ohio, would declare a fertilized human egg to be a legal person, effectively branding abortion and some forms of birth control as murder. With this far-reaching anti-abortion strategy, the proponents of what they call personhood amendments hope to reshape the national debate.”

What makes this effort even more horrific than it seems at first glance is its attack on contraception, definitely including IUDs and morning-after pills, but potentially capable of affecting all forms of female birth control (nobody’s saying a word about condoms), as well as stem cell research – and we thought that battle had been fought and won!

In case you’re wondering (as I did for the longest time) why anti-choice proponents object to contraception, the very thing that prevents unwanted pregnancies, is this: as much as they object to abortion, they are equally opposed to what they define as “fornication,” meaning, any sex outside of marriage by both sexes whatever their age, and, engaging in recreational sex, even within marriage, rather than having sex solely for procreation.  In short, they don’t just want to make abortion a crime, they want to make sex a crime.  Welcome to the 21st century, where once again Puritans rule! 

Interestingly, as the Times also notes: “The drive for personhood amendments has split the anti-abortion forces nationally.  Some groups call it an inspired moral leap, while traditional leaders of the fight, including National Right to Life and the Roman Catholic bishops, have refused to promote it, charging that the tactic is reckless and could backfire, leading to a Supreme Court defeat that would undermine progress in carving away at Roe v. Wade.”

The two things I find most appalling about these initiatives is (1) they are based on religious definitions of morality/sexually-appropriate behavior, which is completely unacceptable in a secular society, and (2) they are trying to extend the definition of personhood to include a spec of microscopic goo, which is what a fertilized egg is.  In short, this is totally crazy.

However, maybe we as a society would not be poised at this ludicrous juncture if pro-choice advocates had, from Day One, been willing to face the secular moral and legal aspects of our position.  In this regard, I am again motivated to quote the always-interesting Camille Paglia, who wrote on during the 2008 campaign:

“Let’s take the issue of abortion rights, of which I am a firm supporter.  As an atheist and libertarian, I believe that government must stay completely out of the sphere of personal choice.  Every individual has an absolute right to control his or her body…  But the pro-life position, whether or not it is based on religious orthodoxy, is more ethically highly evolved than my own tenet of unconstrained access to abortion on demand.  My argument…has always been that nature has a master plan pushing every species toward procreation and that it is our right and even obligation as rational human beings to defy nature’s fascism… 

“…Hence I have always frankly admitted that abortion is murder…  …I [also] support the death penalty for atrocious crimes (such as rape-murder or the murder of children).  I have never understood the standard Democratic combo of support for abortion and yet opposition to the death penalty…

“…Not until the Democratic Party stringently reexamines its own implicit assumptions and rhetorical formulas will it be able to deal effectively with the enduring and now escalating challenge from the pro-life right wing. Because pro-choice Democrats have been arguing from cold expedience, they have thus far been unable to make an effective ethical case for the right to abortion.”

Fair enough.  So, I will now attempt to make an effective ethical case for the right to abortion:

When a woman becomes pregnant, whatever the circumstances, the fetus within her is in the process of developing into a human being.  But at least until the 7th month of pregnancy, that fetus is unable to survive outside the woman’s body and fully develop on its own.  Therefore, while it is understood that a fetus is a living human being in development, it does not have legal, independent personhood status until birth.  The unborn do not have a “right to life” that supersedes the rights of a born, autonomous woman.

While a fetus is within a woman’s body and is not capable of surviving outside of it, the fetus is an integral part of that woman’s body.  As such, the woman has the right to do with her body what she sees fit, including the removal, the killing, of the fetus, thereby preventing its full gestation and birth.

While this may be distressing to some people, their distress does not alter a woman’s right to control her own body, including whether or not she becomes pregnant, and if so, whether or not she chooses to bring the pregnancy to term. 

The justification for killing the fetus is the same as society’s justification for killing in self-defense, in defense of one’s family and home, in the course of war, in the course of law enforcement when necessary, and as a form of judicial punishment for heinous crime.  Society recognizes that killing, however repugnant, is sometimes necessary, and a secular society recognizes a woman’s right to abortion as one of those necessities, because giving birth to a child that one does not want or is unable to care for is patently irresponsible and cruel.

Those who object to abortion on religious or other personal moral grounds should not have them, and the law should not attempt to coerce them into doing so.  Similarly, those with moral objections to abortion – much as those who object to participation in war – have no moral or legal right to prevent another person’s abortion.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

AMEN>>oops wrong person