Monday, January 28, 2008

Changing the terms of our ongoing abortion debate

published January 20, 2008 in the Terre Haute Tribune Star

The terms of the abortion debate may be about to change. Pro-life activists disillusioned with the incremental approach to restricting access to abortion are launching the “person-hood initiative.” Buoyed by the US Supreme Court’s upholding of the federal partial birth abortion ban, activists are hoping to pass state constitutional amendments, beginning in Colorado, where the language of the amendment passed Colorado State Supreme Court scrutiny. According to US News and World Report, the initiative defines a fertilized egg as a “person” who enjoys "inalienable rights, equality of justice, and due process of law."

This is a change in the language of pro-life activists. Prior attempts to change the law focused on defining life at the moment of conception. Those attempts failed. The activists pushing for the person-hood initiative are hoping to get one passed, it be challenged to the US Supreme Court, and Roe v. Wade be overturned.

Since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, US public opinion has changed very little, although altering the wording of questions can change the results. Nevertheless, for nearly 35 years a majority of Americans have supported the right to choose. Of course, there are “extremists” on both sides of the debate; most people are muddled, trying to seek some kind of middle way. One could argue that the incremental approach to restricting access to abortion, no federal funds for abortions, mandatory waiting periods, and parental consent/notification laws, really do reflect the mainstream of public opinion. That is exactly the problem the “person-hood” initiative activists see, that the US may find a “comfortable” acceptance of abortion with restrictions.

Activists on both sides of the abortion debate have been talking past each other from the beginning. Pro-life supporters have always been talking about “life.” And pro-choice supporters, though not using the language, have been talking about personhood. For an excellent discussion and analysis of the different world-views of pro-life and pro-choice activists, see Kristen Luker’s The Politics of Motherhood.

I, for one, would welcome a change in the terms of the debate because, with a debate on person-hood, both sides would be talking about the same thing instead of past one another. Activists are not likely going to be changed by such a debate, but this change in the terms of the debate might change minds among the majority who are in the middle on abortion.

What is a person? Try this exercise. What is the difference between a human being and a person? List the characteristics of “human being” and of “person.” I have been doing this exercise for more than 20 years with my students. If you are like them, you’ll have a list of terms under “human being” like: species, biological designation, animal, generic, potential, and general. Under “person” you might have terms like: unique, personality, emotions, individual, independent, and named. For over 20 years, I have been doing this little exercise and the lists have been like that.

Next, examine the characteristics in each list and pick which one you prefer. Which do you prefer to be characterized as? A “human being” or a “person?” My students, with rare exception, all pick “person.” How do we get from human being to person? Ahh, this is where many students experience an “ahh, ha” moment, because personhood requires recognition by others, which is exactly what the person-hood initiative recognizes. But the question can be asked, is a fertilized egg the same as an adult, socialized, human being? Life is a biological definition while person is a social one. And by current understandings, one would be very hard pressed to argue that a fertilized egg, even a fetus, meets the criterion for “person-hood” as we currently use the term.

This discussion, if it begins, will push us to confront the very question, “what is a person?” This discussion will bring to light the underlying values of our society much more so than the last 35 years of debate over choice have done. When you pick “person” over “human being,” that reflects a difference in values. If, as I suspect, we value “unique” over “common” in the United States, then it is not likely that we will be granting fertilized eggs or even fetuses “person-hood.”

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