By Diana Hsieh
This post is drawn from Ari Armstrong's and my new policy paper: The 'Personhood' Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception. I'm currently posting the full paper as a series of blog posts. You can read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.
The 'Personhood' Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception
By Ari Armstrong and Diana Hsieh, Ph.D
A policy paper written for the Coalition for Secular Government (www.SecularGovernment.us)
Published on August 31, 2010
The 'Personhood' Movement
The "personhood" movement is a recent off-shoot of the "pro-life" movement. It is motivated, energetic, and idealistic. To understand its likely impact on American politics and law, we must review its origins and recent political activism.
"Personhood" and the Abortion Debate
Where does the "personhood" movement fit in the overall debate over abortion? Policy debates over abortion in America often assume just two camps: "pro-choice" on abortion and "pro-life," or opposed to abortion. In fact, people advocate a variety of views on abortion, depending on their answers to two basic questions: (1) when during pregnancy (if ever) should abortion be legal, and (2) for what reasons?
As we shall see, the advocates of "personhood" are among the most consistent opponents of abortion, explicitly claiming that the zygote is a fully human person with an inalienable right to life. Our view, in contrast, argues for the woman's right to abortion as absolute throughout pregnancy. Between those two extremes, various "moderate" views can be found.
The fully pro-choice position which we endorse rejects any and all restrictions on abortion as an infringement of the rights of the woman. On this view, abortion should be legal until birth, solely at the discretion of the pregnant woman. Even when a woman deserves blame for acting capriciously in deciding to terminate her pregnancy, she is within her rights to do as she pleases with her own body. Ultimately, that is because neither the embryo nor fetus has any rights. Rights begin at birth, when the fetus becomes an infant, biologically separate from the pregnant woman.
We regard this principled position as the only true "pro-choice" position, because only it fully recognizes and respects a woman's right to govern her own body as she sees fit. We also regard it as the only truly "pro-life" position, because restrictions and bans on abortion seriously harm and sometimes destroy the lives of actual people.
Many people adopt a moderate "pro-choice" position by accepting restrictions on abortion. Such people might endorse the waiting periods or ultrasounds demanded by opponents of abortion. More commonly, they hold that early-term abortions should be legal, while later-term abortions should be restricted.
The Supreme Court drew such a distinction between early and late term abortions in its decision on Roe v. Wade. In 1973, the Court overturned state prohibitions of abortion (as well as possible future federal prohibitions), ruling: "For the stage prior to approximately the end of the first trimester, the abortion decision and its effectuation must be left to the medical judgment of the pregnant woman's attending physician." However, the Court also ruled that states may restrict abortion for the "health of the mother" or "in promoting its interest in the potentiality of human life" in the later stages of pregnancy.
In the past, the Catholic Church accepted a similar compromise position, albeit far more on the anti-abortion side. Today, the Vatican emphatically denies that the Church ever morally accepted abortion at any stage, yet it grants that "in the Middle Ages...the opinion was generally held that the spiritual soul was not present until after the first few weeks..." So, as researcher Leslie Reagan states, "Until the mid-nineteenth century, the Catholic Church implicitly accepted early abortions prior to ensoulment."
Today, the most common moderate "pro-life" or anti-abortion view is that abortions should be permitted in cases of rape and incest, as well as to save the life of the mother. In 2000, Republican presidential contenders George W. Bush and John McCain favored such exceptions for rape and incest. On that view, the embryo or fetus cannot be said to have an inalienable right to life. Instead, the common argument is that a woman must pay the natural price for her decision to engage in consensual sex by enduring its known consequence: pregnancy. Almost all abortion, on this view, is an evasion of responsibility.
The Catholic Church now advocates the strict "pro-life" view that abortion should be banned, whatever the circumstances. In the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI condemned "the direct interruption of the generative process already begun and, above all, all direct abortion, even for therapeutic reasons." The basic rationale was that abortion (and artificial birth control) is contrary to "the order of reality established by God" whereby "each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life."
The advocates of "personhood" adopt a similar position on abortion: it must be banned whatever the circumstances. However, their view is based on the evangelical strain of Protestantism. As a result, their arguments that abortion is contrary to God's will are based on (strained) interpretations of Bible passages, rather than appeals to abstract theology. In their secular arguments, the advocates of "personhood" appeal to the fundamentally American notion of an inalienable right to life, claiming that for the embryo and fetus. As a result of those differences, the "personhood" movement does not reject birth control, as does the Catholic Church, provided that it solely acts to prevent fertilization of the egg by sperm.
The basic goal of the "personhood" movement is to "clearly define the pre-born baby as a person" so that embryos and fetuses "will have the same right to life as all Americans do." It seeks to declare that a zygote is a "human being" and "person" from the moment of conception. "Personhood" advocates reject the claim that "life" or rights begin at "quickening," when a fetus begins to move in the womb. Instead, they claim that ultrasonography, "DNA testing," and the "science of fetology...prove...that a fully human and unique individual exists at the moment of fertilization."
Due to its clear rights-based approach, the "personhood" movement condemns moderate "pro-life" positions in the harshest possible terms. For example, American Right to Life, which proclaims itself as "the personhood wing of the pro-life movement," condemned John McCain in 2008 as "pro-abortion," saying he "rejects that an unborn child has the right to life" because, for example, he thinks abortion should be permitted if the "father is a rapist."
From a more historical perspective, the "personhood" movement is a recent manifestation of the religious right's response to Roe v. Wade. In Religion In American Politics, Frank Lambert suggests that the Moral Majority of the 1970s largely reacted to "the radical politics of the sixties," including the "'proabortion' forces" that prevailed in Roe v. Wade. (In fact, support for abortion rights obviously extends far beyond left-wing or "radical" politics). The Moral Majority sought to organize "evangelical leaders [to] boldly engage the culture" and advance the "pro-life" cause as part of their agenda.
The "personhood" movement does not conceal these religious roots. Personhood USA, for example, declares that its "primary mission" is "to serve Jesus by being an Advocate for those who can not speak for themselves, the pre-born child." The organization is "led by Christian ministers... who are missionaries to preborn children. ...They also lead and participate in peaceful pro-life activism, evangelism, and ministry" at abortion clinics, and they seek to "honor the Lord Jesus Christ" with their work.
In their political activism, "personhood" advocates seek a fundamental change in the law rather than incremental changes, such as banning late-term abortions or imposing waiting periods before a woman may obtain an abortion. In addition to championing total abortion bans, "personhood" advocates explicitly seek to outlaw forms of birth control, fertility treatments, and medical research that may result in the destruction of an embryo. They say they want to protect every zygote from the moment of fertilization--and they mean it.
Since its major efforts began in 2008, the "personhood" movement has emphasized the goal of reversing Roe v. Wade as a critical step in imposing abortion bans. A document from Colorado for Equal Rights states, "Why redefine the term person? In the famous Roe v Wade Supreme Court case Justice Blackmun said basically that the whole argument for abortion rights falls apart if we know that the pre-born is a person." Similarly, LifeSiteNews.com paraphrases then-prominent Colorado anti-abortion activist Kristi Burton: "The time is ripe for a legal challenge to Roe v. Wade." In its 2008 candidate questionnaire, Colorado Right to Life states, "Colorado RTL opposes every law that regulates the killing of unborn children because, regardless of the intention, such laws...will keep abortion legal if Roe v. Wade is merely overturned..." In 2009, Gualberto Garcia Jones, more recently a sponsor of Amendment 62, said, "All of our laws that we're promoting are direct challenges to Roe v. Wade."
By promoting campaigns to legally recognize embryos and fetuses as persons from the moment of fertilization, the "personhood" movement has sought to change public attitudes about abortion. Personhood USA has taken credit for polling results showing increased support for abortion bans. Indeed, starting in 2009, Gallup polling showed that, for the first time, more Americans called themselves "pro-life" than "pro-choice." (While we contend the anti-abortion stance is in fact the anti-life one, generally Americans understand that for such polling purposes "pro-life" indicates anti-abortion.) While Personhood USA is partly a result of an increasingly energetic anti-abortion movement, rather than the cause of it, the activities of "personhood" activists probably have helped sway public opinion.
A closer look at the political campaigns waged by the "personhood" movement will better reveal its beliefs and strategies.
Read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.