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The Personhood Initiative

January 19, 2010

Deal Hudson at Inside Catholic wrote recently about the divisions in the pro-life movement over the Personhood Initiative, a nation-wide effort to legally define “personhood” as beginning at the moment of conception. The testing ground for the initiative was Colorado, where the movement’s founder, an admirable 19 year-old by the name of Kristi Burton, hails from. The lowdown, according to Deal, is that,

Colorado voters turned down the amendment by a stunning 73 percent to 27 percent, in spite of support from Focus on the Family, American Life League, and legal advice from the Thomas More Law Center. But the effort had failed to gain the support of either National Right to Life (NRTL) or the Colorado Catholic Conference.

Whether or not that extra support would have resulted in a less unbalanced result, I cannot say. For those wondering why the Catholic Conference, and many American bishops are hesitant to embrace the PI, the concern was apparently that if it were taken to, and shot down by, the Supreme Court, it would have the effect of “actively reaffirm[ing] the mistaken jurisprudence of Roe.” According to Deal, however, some Catholic bishops are reconsidering their position on the PI.

Not long ago, in the context of the debate over the efforts of Bart Stupak and the pro-life Dems, I wrote about pro-life pragmatism. I argued that the much-derided “incrementalism” is actually the most viable way of winning the long-term war against the abortion industry in light of the facts about where the American electorate stands on abortion. With respect to the PI, and with all due respect to the founders and supporters of this movement, I must reaffirm that position.

That the first attempt of the PI was defeated by a 3/4 margin in what I will call a “purple” state is entirely unsurprising to me, as it ought to be to anyone who studies the trends in the American electorate with regards to abortion. I will recall the two most important facts I cited in my previous entry on this topic: 1) the majority of Americans favor greater restrictions on abortion, but not outright bans, which is what the passage of a PI would amount to, and 2) the majority of Americans, whether pro-life or pro-choice, do not place abortion near the top of their list of political priorities. Any political strategy or movement that fails to plan around these two facts is planning to fail.

One must understand, in the first place, that “incrementalism” is not something that is preferred because of any intrinsic value it may have over the alternative approaches – call those what you will. “Incrementalism” is nothing else but a description of the pace at which the attitudes and opinions of the electorate are subject to transformation, at least on this issue, during this historical epoch. As I have also argued in the past, I am surprised that the majority of Americans even favor greater restrictions on abortion – especially given that the 2008 elections saw parental notification propositions go down in flames in a couple of states, even as pro-marriage initiatives enjoyed success. Needless to say, if voters won’t even step up to the plate to enact parental notification laws, I don’t see them getting on board with a PI.

So I do not blame either NRTL, or the Catholic bishops, for hesitating to participate in or encourage this movement. A political movement, if it wishes to be successful, must prioritize its resources and allocate them to projects that are likely to have a significant impact. I have always been a supporter of the sort of work done by the Center for Bioethical Reform – of putting the ugly and bloody truth of abortion in people’s faces. This is an intrinsic good – the telling of the truth – in service of an intrinsic good – transforming views on abortion. I am also supportive of civil disobedience campaigns and whatever else it takes to make an impact on the public consciousness. And I think pro-life Democrats deserve a great deal more support, having proven their ability and willingness to hold the line on abortion (and I pray that they continue to do so, as Stupak has pledged).

But these personhood initiatives, while good in spirit, ask for too much, too soon (naturally depending upon the state – I am open to the suggestion that some states may indeed be ready, or close enough). By their very nature they presume that the electorate is in a moral place that they are really not in, and still relatively far from. A movement based on a false assumption is not one that I can support. The argument for personhood, at this stage, does not need to be tied to a political initiative.

For in most cases  – not all, but most – laws and the politicians who create and interpret them, are highly concentrated expressions of broader cultural and social trends. If it helps, one might think of the laws as a crop, and the culture or social situation as the ground; the ground must be broken and tilled before it can be planted, the weather must be favorable, the farmers must know what they are doing. One who tries to practice agriculture on any random patch of dirt without respect to these factors is more likely to fail, is perhaps even certain to fail. This we know not only from practical experience, but from Christ Himself through the parable of the sower – a truly timeless lesson for all sowers of all words.

Thus, instead of speaking of “incrementalism”, which might mean different things, and which might, in some cases, really be a sort of rationalization for complacency, we ought to perhaps speak of breaking or preparing the ground. This involves a no-holds-barred cultural offensive against the abortion industry, which as an institution is on the defensive. Easily-defeated PIs do nothing to undermine this powerful but blundering foe; on the other hand, there are several vulnerable points that can be struck. Exposing their inhuman, vile, international agenda is a start.

In any event, the pro-life movement needs genuine field marshals who are willing to use all of the weapons at their disposal while retaining a rational political strategy. The PI, as admirable as the intentions behind it may be – and I fully agree with their positions in principle – is, on the practical level, simply quixotic.

On a final note, I fully support the Manhattan Declaration and encourage co-bloggers and readers to sign, if they have not done so already.

  1. Ronald King permalink
    January 20, 2010 11:33 am

    Joe, I do not believe that the political approach nor the confrontation with the abortion industry will have the effect we want. I see on one hand the outrage with abortion and this being called the worst holocaust in history. On the other hand I see and hear limitations on how much we are willing to sacrifice for this cause. To engage in this struggle for life we must struggle and sacrifice in a united effort which demonstrates what we are willing to give up for the lives of these babies and their mothers.
    However, voting, weekend marches and 40 Days for Life are limited in their well-intentioned efforts. As a result, we go to work in the home or out of the home, complain about lack of enthusiasm for the cause, build up one’s vacation to take a “pilgrimage” to the Holy Land to deepen their faith sponsored by Catholic apostolates who are outraged with the government and abortion, have conferences and meetings to discuss pro-life issues and strategies, take plain trips to give talks about one’s expertise, build up the “culture of life” by talking to death the “culture of death” and being praised as a great leader in the “culture of life”, while remaining comfortable in the known of one’s justifiable rage.
    The answer it appears to me is knowing how human beings operate. We learn by observation first. The efforts now employed do not create the shock necessary to shake people out of their sleep and keep those who are committed to this cause inhibited in the expression of the immediate critical nature of life and death within each breath we take.
    If we want to create a passionate movement based on love instead of self-righteous indignation we must do what Our Lady of Fatima told us to do–pray the Rosary and repent.
    How do you do this? A cross-country walking Rosary Pilgrimage that raises money to create a national support system for mother’s and their unborn children. Leaders must exhibit the sacrifice equal to the crisis. Leaders create expectations by how much they sacrifice. All apostolates must take their show on the road and be uncomfortable within the unknown and put their lives out in the open and exhibit a faith that does not depend on any government or political solution to a spiritual crisis.
    Just some thoughts Joe.

  2. February 3, 2010 12:10 am

    Serious question for the Personhood Initiative: What about twinning? As I recall, the possibility of early zygote twinning led both Anscombe and Geach to claim that a person doesn’t exist until some, unspecified, time after conception. (Which does not entail that the zygote should not still be protected.)

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