The particulars of personhood

I kept meaning to read up on Mississippi’s “personhood” initiative before voters voted on it. We’d had readers mention some problems with the coverage, namely that stories were burying the fact that pro-life groups were divided on whether to vote for it. Now, maybe you’ve followed the “personhood” debate. Maybe you haven’t. But try to read this Associated Press story tabula rasa-style. Imagine you know nothing, or very little, about the debate and see what you can glean from this story.

Here’s just a sample, from the beginning of the story:

Abortion opponents say they’re still pursuing life-at-fertilization ballot initiatives in six other states even though voters in the Bible Belt state of Mississippi rejected the conservative measure.

Abortion rights supporters praised the vote, saying the measure went too far because it would have made common forms of birth control illegal and would have forced women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term.

The White House called it a victory for women and families.

OK, there’s the fact that this story’s framing supports the complaints from readers that pro-life division over the ballot initiative was buried. But let’s say you’re simply wondering what the personhood initiative is. Does this lede in any way help you out? What the heck is a “life-at-fertilization” initiative?

You can read the rest of the story and get various spin from various groups about what the vote supposedly means. But for a simple story on the ballot initiative failing, it fails to explain what the ballot initiative really was.

Like, why was it called a “personhood” initiative? I suspect it’s because it went further than declaring the scientific facts of human life beginning, as it does, when the sperm fertilizes the egg. I suspect that there’s something key about “personhood” in this debate, but darned if I have any idea what it is from reading this story.

Over at the Weekly Standard blog, reporter John McCormack explains how the initiative that’s been presented as a big failure of pro-life groups didn’t get support from many big pro-life groups. He began by explaining the actual language of the initiative, which would amend the state constitution to hold “The term ‘person’ or ‘persons’ shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.” So there you go.

Back to the Associated Press story, it mostly goes back and forth between the initiative’s supporters and pro-choice opponents. Which is fine. But since the failure of the initiative in a pro-life state hinged on pro-lifers voting against it, it would have been good to feature that angle a bit more prominently, instead of at the end where learn that some religious groups and various pro-life groups either opposed the initiative outright or took no position.

A much better approach was taken by Religion News Service on their day-after approach. Here’s how the RNS piece begins:

The failure of the “personhood” initiative in Mississippi on Tuesday intensified what appears to be a growing divide in the anti-abortion movement.

Some backers of the initiative, which aimed to make abortion illegal by defining a fetus as a person from the moment of conception, are pointing fingers at major anti-abortion groups that stood on the sidelines during the Mississippi debate.

Well how about that? An actual advance of the political story that explains what the big deal is about the initiative. It’s helpful and informative.

If you’re looking for a hysterical piece that mocks the personhood initiative with palpable hatred, you should read what Time contributor Nina ‘I would be happy to perform fellatio on Bill Clinton just to thank him for keeping abortion legal‘ Burleigh wrote. I’m going to go out on a limb here, though, and suggest that serious publications probably shouldn’t publish pieces about complex topics by such partisans, though. It’s the kind of piece written by someone who never got over referring to the lives terminated by abortion as a “clump of cells,” and uses euphemisms to dehumanize the earliest stages of human life. It begins “Rebecca Kiessling embodies the right-wing female firebrand in all the clichéd ways. She has long, straight blonde hair, a law degree and bears a resemblance to Ann Coulter. She’s married, a home-schooling mother of five and vehemently pro-life.” Oh do tell us more, Burleigh. We’re all ears for your presidential kneepad perspective.

Alicia Cohn, a political reporter here in DC, also filed a helpful piece for Christianity Today where she accurately noted that pro-life groups were very far from unified on the effort and also explained what the heck a personhood initiative is. All in the first three sentences! See, it can be done.

Image of pregnant woman and unborn child via Shutterstock.

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  • R9

    Call for better explanation of what the personhood initiative was about: worthy and useful

    angry pro-life ranting about angry pro-choice ranting: there’s a zillion conservative blogs out there to do that already!

  • Ray Ingles

    So, uh, Mollie – any particular reason you linked to a ‘fisking’ of Ms. Burleigh’s piece rather than the actual article?

  • sari

    Ray, Thank you for posting the link. From the Time article:

    “As abortion-rights group NARAL and Planned Parenthood scrambled to mount a response to yet another House bill aimed at restricting not just abortion but also women’s access to contraception and medical care — HR 358, dubbed the “Let Women Die Act” for allowing emergency-room staff to refuse to provide lifesaving abortions — in Ohio…”

    The statement above brought to mind a question I’ve long had about media’s failure to address other faiths’ beliefs on reproductive issues? Imposing measures like the one above effectively makes criminals of people living within the dictates of their belief systems. Jewish law is very clear, for instance, that the woman at risk of dying *must* be saved before the fetus, whereas the bill proposed above is consistent with Catholicism, which mandates the opposite. When I was a child, most pregnant Jewish women sought non-Catholic hospitals in which to deliver rather than risk dying as emergency staff tried vainly to save a nonviable fetus.

    There needs to be more balanced religion coverage on reproductive issues. In a country as diverse as this one, all voices should be heard, not just Christians.

  • Mollie

    Ray Ingles,

    Well, I linked to that fisking for the actual quote of Time contributor Nina Burleigh about blowing Bill Clinton for his support of abortion. I worried that people wouldn’t remember or believe it was true otherwise. And then I forgot to link to the Time piece elsewhere. But I fixed it now.

  • Bill

    Sari, I don’t think the Catholic position is fairly represented. (If I’m wrong on this, I welcome correction.) The requirement is to recognize there are two lives present and to honor both. Neither can be killed to save the other. However, if a procedure to save the mother’s life has an unintended consequence resulting in the baby’s death, no sin has been committed. An imperfect analog occurs at the end of life. Euthanasia is impermissible, but morphine administered to ease the pain of a cancer patient is fine, even though it will likely shorten the person’s life. It is a fine line with feathered edges. I once had a long and illuminating discussion about this (and other subjects) with an Orthodox rabbi on a cross country flight.

    Moral considerations aside, if the only abortions being performed were in the oft invoked cases of “incest, rape and to save the mother’s life,” I doubt the debate would be so impassioned.

    I’m reminded of the question Rick Warren posed to both John McCain and Barak Obama during the 2008 campaign: when do we grant the legal status of personhood. (My paraphrase) Mr Obama responded, “Whether you’re looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity is above my pay grade.” Politically artful, but disingenuous. Regardless of the result, the Mississippi ballot question did not sidestep the issue. It will be interesting to follow the debates and divisions within the pro-life movement.

  • sari

    Bill, A gap may exist between the details of Church canon and actual practice. The policies in place prohibit D&Cs of non-viable fetuses, even when waiting to go into labor jeopardizes the mother’s life. This was exactly the position I was in almost twenty years ago, when my baby’s heart ceased to beat. Ten days and five ultrasounds later, it was clear that the baby was no more, but the two St.—- hospitals would not allow the D&C to be performed on the premises. My OBGYN performed the procedure in his office rather than leave me waiting to go into labor, something which could have taken as long as a month and which could have had profound consequences. For the record, I was into my second trimester, had first seen the doc at five weeks, -and- had a fourteen month old at home.

    Regardless, when speaking of legislation that will affect ALL women’s access to reproductive services, it would be nice to see journalists cover all the religious bases rather than the more usual liberal(read secular, though many liberals aren’t) and conservative Christian angles. Given the current climate, would the courts issue religious exemptions as they did in Prohibition or would we be forced to act against our religious beliefs?

  • Ray Ingles

    Mollie – Fair enough. Thanks.

  • AuthenticBioethics

    Sari, I believe Bill to be correct in essence and the St.– hospitals to be overly conservative. If there were no fetal heartbeat for 10 days on 5 ultrasounds, the D&D should have been permissible. Do you recall the exact reasoning? I know it was a long time and many emotions ago, but I would be interested in the logic employed.

    Beliefs need also to be informed by reason. If an embryo is a person, then that should guide ethical decision making. If it is wrong to intentionally kill one innocent person in order to save the life or health of another, we need to go from there in deliberating what to do in critical life-threatening situations involving a pregnant woman.

    “That person is not a person,” the Mississippi vote seems to be, “because if he were, it would be inconvenient to me.” If that’s how MS voters voted, the pro-life movement needs to focus more on “what’s in it for me” using facts and logic as support and not the main reason.

  • sari

    The hospital’s policy was well-known to all the doctors in the area. It was neither unique nor new, since I remember groups of Jewish women chatting about hospital choices when my mother was pregnant with a sib ten years my junior. Contrast this with my sister’s experience; she had a similar issue (sadly, twice) and had her procedures done in a non-Catholic hospital under full anesthesia.

    I have no interest in debating the “rightness” of pro-life/pro-choice positions, except insofar as those positions affect my ability to live as an observant Jew. Belief is informed by reason to a point; every faith has its own beliefs and rationales to substantiate those beliefs. My LDS friends abstain from alcohol, but their abstention should not prevent me from using wine for kiddush. The press has ignored entirely the problem of legislation that prevents people from living within the confines of their religions, preferring instead to assume that all “religious” people subscribe to some sort of uniform groupthink and to focus on the most polarized factions.

    I’d like to hear what religious leaders across the spectrum have to say about these issues and what impact legislation has on their followers.

  • Ann Rodgers

    Not living near Mississippi I didn’t monitor coverage of this personhood initiative in detail, but was disappointed in the little I did encounter, which was mostly on NPR. That coverage reflected a flaw I often see in abortion reporting, which is to quote fringe groups on the pro-life side, rather than legislative heavy-lifters such as the National Right to Life Committee and U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
    The NPR piece that I remember most quoted someone from the American Family Association, which I regard primarily as a fundraising group that seeks to get conservative Protestants all hyped up about stuff, often using inaccurate information. I have never perceived it as a group works carefully and strategically to achieve legislative goals. I can think of lots of legal and pragmatic reasons why some major pro-life groups might have decided this was a poor legal strategy, and was sorry that no one appeared to be asking them.
    Perhaps someone should put together a practical guide for reporters on finding responsible sources in the pro-life movement. I’m not sure that the lack of such voices is a sign of hostility (though it sometimes is). I think that the more pervasive problem is ignorance.

  • MJBubba

    Ann Rogers, I live near Mississippi and I got media spillover from their recent elections. (I don’t watch any TV, so I missed a lot, but I read the papers and hear some talk radio.) They had all their statewide offices up for election, but I did not hear any of the candidates using personhood as an issue, probably because a majority of the Democratic candidates endorsed the proposed amendment, and because the Republican establishment did not like it much.
    As for the American Family Association, they stumped for it, but you are right, the major pro-life groups did not invest. When I spoke with informed Mississippians, they usually said (I am paraphrasing) the proposed amendment would be very costly to defend in court and Mississippi is too poor to carry the legal expense. Since it would be a setback to the cause to trigger a court fight that you could not fund, it would be better to wait for this one and let some other state lead.