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
'Personhood' and the Separation of Church and State
To the world at large, advocates of "personhood" might seem to be little more than unusually devoted and consistent opponents of abortion. They might seem to be motivated by a commitment to scientific fact and inalienable rights. Yet in fact, they are religious zealots seeking to impose the tenets of their faith by force of law. Consequently, any "personhood" measure, in addition to the other harms they threaten to unleash, would violate the proper separation of church and state.
"Personhood" advocates do not conceal or disguise their religious agenda. They proclaim it, loudly and persistently. Consider a few representative claims.
Kristi Burton, the public face of Amendment 48 in the 2008 campaign, explained her reason for fighting to ban abortion: "It just came to me. I prayed about it and knew God was calling me to do it."
As noted previously, Personhood USA's founders proclaim their religious motives:
Personhood U.S.A. is led by Christian ministers Keith Mason and Cal Zastrow...who are missionaries to preborn children. ...They also lead and participate in peaceful pro-life activism, evangelism, and ministry outside of places where preborn babies get murdered [sic]. Personhood USA is committed to...[h]onor[ing] the Lord Jesus Christ with our lives and actions.In Personhood USA's "Amendment 62 Campaign Video" for 2010, a spokesman (erroneously) claims that the Declaration of Independence declares that "the rights of the unborn...come from the Creator." The video follows this statement with a Bible passage purportedly supportive of "personhood." Personhood USA thanks the "thousands of volunteers and hundreds of churches that made Amendment 62 a reality." For background music, the video uses the Bluetree song, "God of this City," which begins, "You're God of this city, you're the King of these people, you're the Lord of this nation."
Personhood Colorado (while misrepresenting the arguments against "personhood") tailors its message to the religious:
Now the Church must unite and act boldly for the child in the womb. Amendment 62 needs men and women of faith to promote the culture of life in our churches by organizing campaigning events and prayer teams.Colorado Right to Life, whose vice president helped submit Amendment 62 to the Secretary of State, "commits to never compromise on" what it holds to be "God's law," which is that "[e]very human being has a God-given right to life from the beginning of that person's biological development [fertilization] through natural death." The organization also includes a web page titled "The Bible and Abortion" to highlight the many Biblical passages the organization deems supportive of "personhood."
In 2008, an unprecedented number of churches awoke from their slumber to put the Personhood Amendment on the ballot. This year, we are on the ballot and need to reach out to even more churches so that we may continue to educate and advocate for the preborn child.
Personhood is a Spiritual Battle. The secular world and their false gods have no reason to protect the preborn child. However, with the power of God's promises, and the loving support of His people, all of the lies and scare tactics used by the secular world will be defeated.
God's word is clear. The only real question is, will we be faithful? ...There are a number of resources available for you to use in your churches. One is a letter by the Alliance Defense Fund, a national Christian law firm, assuring pastors of the legality of working on a constitutional amendment vis-a-vis their non-profit status. ...
The most important aspect of our outreach to the churches is 1) to have God's people praying for the preborn child and for this campaign, and 2) to have God's people work to get Amendment 62 [passed].
The "About" web page for Personhood Florida begins and ends with Bible passages. The organization declares, "As the hands and feet of Christ it is up to us to safeguard this most fundamental of these rights--human personhood."
Personhood.net, a website of Georgia Right to Life, proclaims four "laws of personhood," where the first two are explicitly based on God's will, as revealed through Judeo-Christian scripture:
Law 1: A person is a living physical/spiritual being created in the image of God, male and female, from their earliest biological beginning until natural death.And:
In a Judeo-Christian worldview the human being as such is afforded a special status and dignity on account of being created in the image of God: "So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them." (Gn 1:27) ...Because we bear the image of God, all mankind, and, by extension, each and every human life has a "specialness" and worth that demands respect.
Law 2: A person's right to life is inalienable regardless of age, race, sex, genetic pre-disposition, condition of dependency or biological development.Abort73.com, a website featured prominently by Personhood USA, is a project of Loxafamosity Ministries. "Motivated by our Christian calling," the organization works to "establish justice" and "expose evil injustices" in accordance with its religious views. The organization's seven-point statement of religious faith, which discusses among other things the Christian's need to evangelize, concludes with a call to recognize the "social implications" of the "announcement of the gospel of Jesus," which the group holds to include the policy goal of totally banning abortion.
Genesis 2:7 (ESV) "...then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature." The right to life is inalienable because it originates with God.
Such proclamations of deeply religious motives are representative of the "personhood" movement and pervasive within it. "Personhood" activists leave no doubt that their political agenda is fundamentally motivated by religious faith. For example, upon turning in signatures for what would become Amendment 62, supporters cheered for Jesus and broke out in the song, "Onward Christian Soldiers."
Undoubtedly, "personhood" advocates offer a secular argument to supplement their appeals to God's will--as seen in a prior section. Yet even that argument is fundamentally religious, in that the logical leap from the human biology of the embryo and fetus to its personhood requires an assumption of God's gift of rights at conception. The secular argument is mere veneer for the thoroughly religious worldview that animates the calls for "personhood."
In fact, American Right to Life, "The Personhood Wing of the Pro-Life Movement," explicitly warns against appealing to science rather than focusing on basic religious dogmas:
Don't make excuses for Planned Parenthood murdering countless children by saying, "Now that we have 4D ultrasound, we know that this is a baby." Long before ultrasound, the mutilated body of the first aborted child, and the millions since, testified to the wickedness of child killing. 3,500 years ago the Mosaic Law in the Hebrew Scriptures recognized the unborn child as a person...Evidently, even "personhood" advocates don't take their own secular arguments very seriously--and no wonder, since they're so simplistic and fallacious.
In all likelihood, "personhood" advocates resort to secular claims only to appeal to mainstream voters, and perhaps to ward off future legal challenges. In that respect, they resemble the Christians promoting creationism under the pseudo-scientific banner of "intelligent design."
Ultimately, we should take "personhood" advocates at their word: they seek to impose God's law on America. They want to force all Americans, whatever their religious beliefs, to conform to the dictates of their faith. As such, Amendment 62 and other "personhood" measures must be regarded as prime examples of faith-based politics--or worse, outright theocracy. They violate the separation of church and state--and that's an additional reason to reject them.
Despite the frequent claims from the religious right that America was founded as a "Christian nation," the U.S. Constitution is a thoroughly secular document, referring to religion only to forbid any mingling of faith and politics. Most importantly, the First Amendment states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."
In his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists, Thomas Jefferson expounded the significance of this basic law:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.What does that analogy of a "wall of separation" imply about the relationship between church and state? As philosopher Onkar Ghate argues, its original and proper meaning is two-fold. First, the state ought not use its powers of coercion to shape people's religious beliefs or practices, such as by requiring people to accept Islam or attend church. Instead, the state must only consider whether people's actions, regardless of any religious motivation, violate the rights of others. So the state should intervene to stop men from beating their wives, even if sanctioned by religious scripture. And it should allow people to speak in tongues, even though that is foolish. Second, churches cannot be permitted to harness the power of the state to promote or enforce their preferred religious beliefs and practices, such as if priests acted as television censors or received special tax refunds. Instead, churches must respect the rights of others, using only persuasion to motivate belief.
In essence, a proper government cannot give any more or less weight to certain beliefs just because they are religious in nature. The government must allow people freedom of conscience--including the freedom to act on their beliefs, however wrong or even absurd--provided that they do not violate the rights of others in the process. Yet the government itself must act solely based on rationally provable facts about man's nature, including secular principles of individual rights--not based on any claims of religious faith. Such is the true meaning of a separation of church and state.
Despite some secular veneer, "personhood" advocates aim to force Americans to comply with their notion of divine law. As we have seen, they proclaim that purpose, loudly and clearly. As such, they seek to violate every American's freedom of religion and freedom of conscience.
Of course, "personhood" activists have every right to attempt to persuade others to follow divine law, as they see it. They have every right to condemn abortion on religious grounds--and attempt to persuade pregnant women not to abort. However, to impose their views by force--whether as vigilantes or political activists--constitutes a grave violation of rights.
In sum, due to their inherently religious motivation and justification, "personhood" measures violate the separation of church and state--and thereby threaten the very foundations of our freedom. A just and proper government must determine the rights involved in pregnancy on the basis of empirical fact, informed by an objective theory of rights. It must recognize and protect the rights of actual persons, not invent rights for merely potential persons. It must uphold the right of the pregnant woman to terminate her pregnancy at any time, for any reason.
Read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.