The "Push for Personhood"

The New York Times reports on the "push for personhood" and a new anti-abortion amendment in Mississippi:

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....

The amendment in Mississippi would ban virtually all abortions, including those resulting from rape or incest. It would bar some birth control methods, including IUDs and “morning-after pills” that prevent fertilized eggs from implanting in the uterus. It would also outlaw the destruction of embryos created in laboratories.

Catholics certainly believe that life begins at conception, but many who hope to ultimately overturn Roe v. Wade—including Catholic bishops—think the amendment is a step in the wrong direction. According to the Times:

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.

A statement last week from Bishop Joseph Latino of Jackson, Miss., included his thoughts on the petitioning phase of the amendment: "I join with Catholic Bishops in several other states in not endorsing Personhood petitions to be circulated in our Catholic parishes. We have committed ourselves to working for a federal amendment and feel the push for a state amendment could ultimately harm our efforts to overturn Roe vs. Wade."

The statement also included his thoughts now that the amendment has moved beyond the petitioning phase: "Although the Diocese of Jackson is not taking a position of public support for this amendment, individual Catholics, having formed their consciences, may vote as they so choose. The Roman Catholic Church and her bishops are unequivocally pro-life; however, we do not always publicly support every initiative that comes before us in the name of pro-life."


Beth Cioffoletti
5 years 7 months ago
It's probably not a bad thing that the issue is being pushed to this point of absurdity.  Hopefully people will think more deeply about the beginnings of life and problems with imposing legality into that place of profound mystery.

The article points out that most fertilized eggs, by nature, are never implanted or develop any further.  Will the law require that menstrual effluent be examined for any fertilized embryos???  And what will be done about the hundreds of thousands of frozen embryos produced during IVF??? This law is stating that fertilized embryos have the legal rights of persons.

It is movements like this that cause me, though firmly pro-life, to question the wisdom (and even rightness) of the legal criminalization of abortion.  What a pandora's box.  It seems to me that some decisions in life must be left to the conscience of the individual person, and this is one of them.  The Church must do its best to form that conscience to act in truth, but in the end, must let go and leave the final decision to the person. 
Tom Maher
5 years 7 months ago
Attempting a state personhood amendment will not undue the damage of Roe v Wade.  The Mississippi proponent are badly politically overreaching.  One of the dangers of grass roots movements is they do not think strategically.

The key strategic fact here is a state amendment does not overturn a Supreme Court ruling.  For all the fuss this amendment will be meaninglless in Mississippi and in evey other stat?e?.? ?????T?h?e? ?o?u?t?c?o?m?e? ?o?f? ?t?h?i?s? ?e?f?f?o?r?t? ?i?s? ?a?l?r?e?a?d?y? ?k?n?o?w?n????????????????????????????????????????. This is a futile act.
Rick Fueyo
5 years 7 months ago
Wise comments from both Beth and Tom.  Thanks for the though provoking insights.
Chris Sullivan
5 years 7 months ago
Properly speaking, the Catholic Church does not teach that a human person exists at conception, and the Magisterial documents are careful to state that.  That is still an open question in Catholic theology.  We don't know exactly when ensoulment occurs.

God Bless
Bill Collier
5 years 7 months ago
I’m not sure if I agree with the argument that support of a state "personhood" amendment could backfire politically. Now 38 years after Roe and Doe, and tens of millions of unborn lives destroyed in the U.S. in the interim, it seems to me that any and all efforts to protect the unborn should be pursued.
There’s at least one recent legal pro-life victory to be noted, though it doesn’t affect U.S. law and it involves intellectual property jurisprudence. Last week the European Union’s Court of Justice ruled that EU member countries cannot issue patents for processes developed for the extraction of stem cells from human embryos if those processes result in the death of the embryos. The primary question addressed by the court was whether "human embryo" includes all stages of life from fertilization or whether some later developmental stage must first be reached. The court’s judgment did not turn on religious or philosophical reasoning but on science and the concept of "respect for human dignity" that is specifically articulated in the EU Treaty binding all member countries.
While it is a long way from the EU to the U.S., both literally and legally, and while this right-to-life decision was issued in the context of a highly technical and specialized area of the law, the decision is welcome if it furthers legal protection for the unborn wherever they are. It took hundreds of years and a civil war before the shift in American attitudes regarding recognition of slaves as "persons" under the law. I think that the same paradigm shift in attitude and legal protection will happen in the U.S. regarding the most defenseless among us, but we can only hope that another four decades will not pass before it dawns on us that the unborn deserve protection for no reason other than their intrinsic human dignity.
For those interested, the link to the EU decision is provided below. My suggestion is that you read the Opinion of the Advocate General before tackling the judgment of the court. The former puts the law, the specific dispute, and the legal reasoning in fuller context.
Bill Collier
5 years 7 months ago

I don't know what all the magisterial documents may say about the concept of "personhood," but the encyclical Evangelium Vitae makes crystal clear that the intentional killing of a defenseless human being is always wrong. From paragraph 60 of that document:

"Some people try to justify abortion by claiming that the result of conception, at least up to a certain number of days, cannot yet be considered a personal human life. But in fact, 'from the time that the ovum is fertilized, a life is begun which is neither that of the father nor the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth. It would never be made human if it were not human already. This has always been clear, and ... modern genetic science offers clear confirmation. It has demonstrated that from the first instant there is established the programme of what this living being will be: a person, this individual person with his characteristic aspects already well determined. Right from fertilization the adventure of a human life begins, and each of its capacities requires time-a rather lengthy time-to find its place and to be in a position to act'. Even if the presence of a spiritual soul cannot be ascertained by empirical data, the results themselves of scientific research on the human embryo provide 'a valuable indication for discerning by the use of reason a personal presence at the moment of the first appearance of a human life: how could a human individual not be a human person?'.
Furthermore, what is at stake is so important that, from the standpoint of moral obligation, the mere probability that a human person is involved would suffice to justify an absolutely clear prohibition of any intervention aimed at killing a human embryo."
Jim McCrea
5 years 7 months ago
Theology is one thing.  Politics is something altogether different.

The is NO agreement on the theology that underlies this political attempt.

I suspect that if this passes in Mississippi and is challenged up to the level of SCOTUS, the end results may by much "worse" than the opponents of RvW think exist now.

Be very very careful about that which you seek.

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Greg Hicks as "Richard III" (photo: Alex Brenner)
It would be fascinating were the producers able to arrange a quick transfer to a venue somewhere near the White House.
David StewartMay 26, 2017
In the hyper-curated, beautiful world that Dev lives in, a scene that conveys the touching, ugly stubbornness of marriage seems totally impossible.
Eloise BlondiauMay 26, 2017
This image released by the Minya governorate media office shows bodies of victims killed when gunmen stormed a bus in Minya, Egypt, Friday, May 26, 2017 (Minya Governorate Media office via AP).
The attack in central Egypt today killed at least 26 people, including children aged 2 to 4, and wounded 25 others.
Gerard O'ConnellMay 26, 2017
The data and facts are clear: If you care about working families and sound economic policy, SNAP is the program for you.
Meghan J. ClarkMay 26, 2017