Mississippi voters on Nov. 8 will decide whether a human person is created at the moment of conception. It is the key question, but largely ignored in the abortion debate. Human life, as science tells us, does indeed begin at conception. But the question of when that human life becomes endowed with all the rights and privileges of a person is a legal, philosophical, ethical and moral issue question of immense consequence.
In Mississippi, this hotly debated question will be decided by a vote. A proposed state constitutional amendment reads:
Section 33. Person defined. As used in this Article III of the state constitution, "The term 'person' or 'persons' shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.
The question (called proposition 26) was placed on the ballot after proponents collected the required 106,000 certified voter signatures. It is the manifestation of the growing "personhood" movement, inspired by pro-life activists and vehemently opposed by pro-choice activists.
The pro-life argument can be found here, on the Vote Yes on 26 website. A pro-choice argument is here on the "Jezebel" website. One thing that both sides seem to agree on: The amendment would end abortion, even in cases of rape.
But even as someone who is pro-life, I think the constitutional amendment is problematic. Should we also have a constitutional amendment that defines when a person's life ends? The legal complications are immense, if not unimaginable.
My own belief is that from the moment of conception, all the defining qualities of "personhood," if you will, are present. All the genetic material that define an individual as an individual is present. It is a self-actuating organism. There is a moment of actual creation, of a qualitative change from what existed before. True, from its first moment of existence, a zygote is dependent on others for sustenance. But aren't we all? The degree of dependence of a zygote, a fetus, a newborn, a child and indeed everyone is just that--a matter of degree. Do we define when someone is a person by the degree of his dependency? We're all in trouble if that's the case.
Is there a middle ground in a democracy short of a constitutional amendment or a supreme court mandate?
I have suggested that a compromise legal and political position that might receive public support would be defining a person using the same standard we use when defining death--the presence or absence of brain wave activity. It's not a perfect measure, and won't satisfy personhood advocates. But it would allow moderation of the status quo, so rigidly defended by the most extreme pro-choicers. Under the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton decisions, issued simultaneously, an abortion is legal at any time, even up to the "moment" of birth.
That, of course, would require the Supreme Court to relax its vice-like grip on the abortion debate. Can we hope?