The "Personhood Amendment" -- just what conservatives need now!

An emerging issue epitomizes a phenomenon I have discussed in countless posts, and I hate to be a repetitive bore, so please bear with me....

I am hardly alone in noticing that like-minded, single-issue activists often associate with -- and tend to exclusively surround themselves with -- other like-minded, single-issue activists. The result is what many call an echo chamber -- or "the choir." But I think "echo chamber" and "choir" are less than accurate terms, because the implication is that people are simply getting together and agreeing with each other in groups. When group dynamics are factored into single issue fanaticism, a lot more happens than mere group agreement. Because people are naturally competitive, many activists want to prove to the group that they are not only devoted to the cause, but more devoted than the others. This leads to extreme hyperbole, and the taking of positions which normal people would consider laughable. A classic was a fierce theoretical libertarian debate I remember over whether handguns should be sold in school vending machines. Like-minded libertarians are no more immune to this phenomenon of ratcheting up the rhetoric than anyone else. However, I think that one of the remarkable aspects of the Tea Party (so far, at least) is that the focus on a common denominator of a few basic principles (namely Fiscal Responsibility, Constitutionally Limited Government, and Free Markets) -- without excluding any single issue activists -- has led to the integration by compartmentalization of most of single issue activists who are involved.

One of the largest single-issue factions in politics today consists of the anti-abortion people. I don't know whether they're supposed to be called "pro-life" or "right to life," these days, but I have no interest in living up to their definitions or passing their litmus tests, any more than I have an interest in the definitions or litmus tests of the pro-abortion (whether they're "pro-choice" or "anti-life") Planned Parenthood type people. As I have said countless times, I think abortion is morally wrong (the more human brain material the embryo has, the more wrong I think it is), but I do not think abortion is murder, and I have a serious problem with imprisoning women for it. Which I hasten to say again is hardly approval:

Saying that a woman shouldn't be imprisoned for aborting her fetus is not the same thing as approving of her act, much less saying it is a good thing. I think drugs should be legal, but that does not mean I approve of or advocate heroin. If God disapproved of heroin, does that mean it would be immoral to oppose imprisoning people for it?
Whether that makes me worthy of the pro-life or pro-choice label, I do not care.

I grew up in a time when abortion was illegal, but it was not murder. In my home state of Pennsylvania, if a woman wanted an abortion, she had to get a physician to say that it was for "therapeutic" reasons -- something many doctors and (or psychiatrists, in the case of a physically healthy woman) were willing to say. Only after the "therapeutic loophole" requirements were complied with (wink-wink) could the therapeutic abortion be performed. This meant that legal abortions were expensive and as a result they were more available to the educated, affluent classes than to the uneducated poor or working classes. Today, of course, there's no need to go doctor-shopping; it's abortion on demand.

In those days, abortion was the sort of thing that people didn't like to discuss, but (and this may reflect my background) I never heard anyone call it murder until after the divisive Roe v. Wade decision was handed down. The idea that abortion is murder is, IMO, a modern phenomenon which is largely a result of single-issue anti-abortion activists who would never have gotten together had it not been for Roe v. Wade. Few of these activists care about the consequences of actually changing the law to make abortion murder. Do we really want to have a country with millions and millions of mass murderesses walking the streets?

The idea that abortion is murder was also aided by Vatican rulings that life begins at conception. But what is conception? Some would say the moment of fertilization, but the history of the term suggests otherwise:

Both the 1828 and 1913 editions of Webster's Dictionary said that to "conceive" meant "to receive into the womb and ... begin the formation of the embryo."[10] It was only in 1875 that Oskar Hertwig discovered that fertilization includes the penetration of a spermatozoon into an ovum. Thus, the term "conception" was in use long before the details of fertilization were discovered. By 1966, a more precise meaning of the word "conception" could be found in common-use dictionaries: the formation of a viable zygote.[11]

In 1959, Dr. Bent Boving suggested that the word "conception" should be associated with the process of implantation instead of fertilization.[12] Some thought was given to possible societal consequences, as evidenced by Boving's statement that "the social advantage of being considered to prevent conception rather than to destroy an established pregnancy could depend on something so simple as a prudent habit of speech." In 1965, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) adopted Boving's definition: "conception is the implantation of a fertilized ovum."[13]

The 1965 ACOG definition was imprecise because, by the time it implants, the zygote is called a blastocyst,[14] so it was clarified in 1972 to "Conception is the implantation of the blastocyst."[15] Some dictionaries continue to use the definition of conception as the formation of a viable zygote.[16]

If we analogize to other forms of life, a fertilized egg is in many ways like a chicken egg or the seed of a plant. It is alive, (and fertilized human eggs can be kept alive for many decades, as can other animal eggs and plant seeds), but until it is actually placed in some sort of environment conducive to its growth, it cannot be said to be the same as a living breathing animal or plant.

I think that saying that a fertilized human egg is a person is about as logical as saying an acorn is an oak tree, but here I am repeating myself. I don't think eggs have souls, and as I have pointed out, if they do then God is the biggest mass murderer of them all, because as many as half of all fertilized eggs never make it into the implanted and growing stage.

Regardless of what anyone thinks of abortion, it is a real stretch to declare eggs people, but once again, it is a perfectly predictable result of single-issue activists ratcheting up the rhetoric.

The latest idea is the so-called Personhood Amendment, which is being promoted in a number of states (including Michigan), and would amend state constitutions to have fertilized eggs legally declared to be people. True to form, the activists are ratcheting up the rhetoric, just in time for the election season:

Members of Personhood Colorado unveiled their first campaign advertisement at a news conference at the Capitol. The radio ad, which will be aired in the coming days, compares the rights of fetuses to American slaves.

It features a fictitious slave by the name of George Stevens who says he fought to end the practice of declaring people as property.

"I fought so all slaves would be recognized as persons, not property, and we won," says Stevens in the radio spot, as patriotic war music plays in the background. "But today in Colorado there are sill people called property Ń children Ń just like I was. And that America you thought you wouldn't recognize is all around you, and these children are being killed."

The ad asks voters this November to vote "yes" on Amendment 62 because the measure declares unborn children persons, not property.

"And that's the America I fought for," concludes the ad.

The news conference yesterday was attended by former Republican presidential hopeful Alan Keyes, as well as faith leaders who support the initiative.

The proposal would define the term "person" in the state constitution as being from the "beginning of the biological development of that human being."

Well, it figures Keyes would be involved. I only hope this kooky idea doesn't become a GOP litmus test, because it is very unpopular with voters. Such a ballot measure has already lost 3 to 1 in Colorado, but losing elections does not stop activists. You might think that a guy who figures largely in the political rise of Barack Obama as does Alan Keyes would think twice about a movement which almost seems perfectly calculated and timed to hurt the conservative cause. But then, hard liners like Keyes are like people who enjoy gambling against huge odds. They expect to lose, and will settle for nothing less than total victory against overwhelming odds.

While I am quite fascinated by the slavery analogy, for a couple of reasons I don't think it's quite accurate to phrase it only in terms of "property" versus "personhood." Even in the days of American slavery, while slaves were property, they were generally considered to be people nonetheless; an early DC statute is typical:

While each state would have its own, most of the ideas were shared throughout the slave states. In the codes for the District of Columbia, a slave is defined as "a human being, who is by law deprived of his or her liberty for life, and is the property of another."[61
Slaves were also considered by most Americans to have souls, and their masters (even if they were nephews of Thomas Jefferson) were not allowed to kill them with impunity.

So I don't think the personhood of a fetus is necessarily dispose of the slavery issue.

Slavery is covered by the 13th Amendment:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Not to digress, but I can't help wonder why the animal rights activists (especially those who call themselves abolitionists) haven't seized on the failure of the amendment to limit slavery to human beings. Why aren't hogs and cattle considered slaves? Why isn't Coco my slave? (At times I think I am her slave, but that's another issue....)

The point is that only people can be slaves, and in that sense human chattel slaves are not like animals, as animals by definition cannot be slaves. Except in the United States, humans are not allowed to be slaves. So, while defining a fertilized egg or a fetus as a person would give it 13th Amendment protection, how is it to be determined whether it is in a state of slavery? A fetus is not the sort of chattel property which can be sold as a "slave," any more than an unborn calf embryo could be sold as a cow, because what gives a slave value as chattel is that because it is a living, walking, talking, comprehending person, it can perform human-like work.

However, embryos and fetuses do share one feature in common with slaves in that they are trapped and not free to leave. Unlike slaves, though, they cannot be transferred from one woman to another (unless this could done before the implantation stage).

Sorry, but I just don't think the slavery analogy works. You could make a better case that an unwilling mother of the fetus is a slave, or at least in a temporary state of involuntary servitude. This argument has been debated by libertarians, and it gets complicated. I'm not sure how I would feel about the idea of having to carry to term a fetus implanted within me against my will. Suppose a burglar broke into my home and for some pathological reason left a baby behind. Sure, I would call the cops and have it taken away, but suppose the burglary happened when I was getting ready to drive to the airport for a two-week vacation, and if I took the necessary time to wait for the appropriate bureaucrats to come and ask all their ponderous questions, I would miss my flight. Of course, I would just have to miss my flight, but suppose I was callused enough to get in my car and drive away. Would I have any legal duty towards that unwanted human in my home? And because the baby is incapable of trespassing, it wouldn't make any difference whether it was left by a burglar or by some stranger who left it on the front porch.

Now, I realize that hypothetical is ridiculous, and that no normal person would leave an abandoned baby to die, but wouldn't it be at least as ridiculous to declare me under a duty to care for that child for a period of many months? Obviously, I am not free to kill an unwanted baby left in my house, but whether I should be forced to care for one is not the same issue. The state cannot compel me to be a child care worker against my will. Unless I were compensated for it, it would be involuntary servitude. Whether this means that women forced to carry unwanted babies to term should be paid, or by whom, I don't know; I use the example mainly to illustrate the endless hair-splitting that results from the "slavery" analogy.

But imagine the debates that will result if state constitutions are amended to call a fertilized egg a person. Taking ordinary birth control pills could be murder. If you think that sounds far-out, consider that there's a major debate going on in the pro-life movement over whether contraceptives should be considered abortifacient drugs. The fact that they might prevent implantation of fertilized eggs in the case of "breakthrough ovulation" is very troubling to some, but what fascinates me is that for pragmatic reasons, there's a sort of polite advocacy of keeping the issue in the closet, which has been bitterly opposed.

If birth control pills can in fact act as abortifacients (which I think it's fair to say they sometimes do), there have been hundreds of millions of murders committed by innumerable ordinary people -- many of whom vote.

Try as I might, I can't see the Personhood Amendment as helpful in any way to the Republicans or to the conservative cause. Were it to really get going, few things could be more divisive or more helpful to the left (and it might especially help the pro-choice movement.)

So under the circumstances, I must question the timing.

posted by Eric on 08.19.10 at 01:05 PM


What a complete waste of time and energy on the part of all concerned. Without even touching on the (admittedly fraught) question of when that fertilized egg becomes a baby, there is so much other nonsense on both sides of the abortion debate fence it's ridiculous.

To start with - post Roe vs Wade, there are more than a few states with Good Samaritan laws protecting anyone who abandons a baby at specific locations. Now... if, when abortion is available people are still carrying babies to birth and then abandoning the child, what do the anti-abortion people think is going to happen if they get abortion banned? There's not going to be a sudden upsurge in loving happy families.

Taking the idiot notion that a fertilized human egg (oh, how speciesist!) is a "person", does this mean that every woman is going to have to have to retain her menstrual fluids for examination to determine if there was a fertilized egg in there that failed to implant? Will she and her family have to hold a funeral for the fertilized egg? Or will she be considered culpable for having failed to allow the egg to implant?

If an already pregnant woman ovulates (which happens) and that egg is fertilized (which happens) but fails to implant because pregnancy makes the womb hostile to further implantation, what kind of punishment should she recieve?

Should miscarriage be penalized? I'm not sure what the current figures are, but miscarriages happen and often the woman who has one has no idea (most occur long before there are any other indications that there is a fertilized egg on its way to babyhood).

If a woman has an ectopic pregnancy, is the unborn "person" responsible - the unborn "person" has, after all, implanted in a part of the woman's body where there isn't space to grow to term, and will cause a rupture at around 5 weeks if not caught beforehand and removed.

Or maybe, just maybe, the real intention is to treat all women as criminals who are very lucky their men are there to look after them?

Abortion is premature infanticide. Criminalizing it on the grounds that a fertiziled human egg is a "person" is - at best - going to kill more women from medical conditions that require abortion (and there are plenty of them), and at worst going to kill them and increase the number of infanticides, while creating the kind of bureaucratic nightmare only a tyrant would endorse.

Calling the people chasing this idiots is too kind.

Kate   ·  August 19, 2010 1:43 PM

My unscientific poll on the subject last year came up with the right wing consensus that abortion is misdemeanor manslaughter for the doctor and the woman goes free. The few who said it was murder felt that they could live with the consensus for now because any stronger statement was not politically viable.

And that was in the pro-life camp. Only a very small minority believes in their hearts that abortion is murder.

Besides if life begins at conception every miscarriage would require a murder investigation. Women wouldn't stand for it and it is also a budget buster.

M. Simon   ·  August 19, 2010 2:24 PM
M. Simon   ·  August 19, 2010 2:27 PM

Kate does a very good job of looking at all the second order effects of such a law.

May I add another: women who do not wish to be subject to the police power of the state will get their eggs removed (or other procedures with similar effect)as soon as they reach the age of emancipation.

Motherhood will be removed as an option.

Is this really what pro-lifers want?

People get blinded by their desires.

M. Simon   ·  August 19, 2010 2:38 PM

Let me add that one of the commenters at

Says that the slavery abolitionists got abortion banned in the various states. Of course that is not true. Oh. They did get laws passed. But that just drove the practice underground. It did not stop it.

M. Simon   ·  August 19, 2010 2:45 PM

While I quite largely agree with you here, I think reposing the problem could help.

I think you agree there is such a thing as murder.

I agree with you that for some period of gestation, abortion is not murder.

I just have trouble understanding where to draw the line. Christian religion seems to have this issue as well - I cannot comment on others.

But if there is such a thing as murder, a society can only express its best effort common definition of murder in law. And I think we all want the law to be rather specific on what is murder and what is not. Laws with grey areas are not good laws, IMHO.

So, we are back to defining when, in this context, is that murder/not murder switch flipped? Is it a time event, a development event? A soul?

So is that not what this personhood amendment seks to define? I've seen a lot of definition in this article about what isn't a person, but tell me please what do you think IS a person?

Bill Johnson   ·  August 19, 2010 4:03 PM

It says something about a person, that they consider abortion the primary issue of our Republic.
I wish I could understand what it says. So far I can't figure out the obsession with embryos.

dr kill   ·  August 19, 2010 7:27 PM

Sorry, but as unfortunate as it is, miscarriage is simply death by natural causes. Also, re: what Eric said above about God being the biggest mass murderer ever if fertilized eggs (i.e. "zygotes) have souls, God wouldn't be a mass murderer any more than he is now, since all lives (and deaths) are in his hands anyway. God is no more guilty of murder when great-uncle Morty dies than he is in the case of a miscarriage.

As Bill Johnson stated above, the issue is, as always, "When does human life begin?" Where is that one point before which the fetus is simply a clump of cells, but after which it is a human being? There are basically only two bright lines that we can really identify--the moment of fertilization (or, if you will, cell division), or birth. And we know scientifically that a baby just after birth is no different than a baby just before birth. So, again--where do we draw the line?

All in all, guys, I really, really love your blog, but I feel a little less contempt for those of us who hold a sincere pro-life position would become you. I understand your position on the subject (truly, I do), but I feel that you often deliberately misunderstand MY position. I certainly don't want to see thousands of women in jail for murder, but I do want to see the trend of decreasing abortion rates continue through education and persuasion. Perhaps someday when people say, "safe, legal and RARE," they'll actually mean that last part.

John S.   ·  August 19, 2010 11:12 PM

John S.,

I hold no contempt for the pro life persons. What I have contempt for is those who feel the government and laws can solve abortion.

I support a pro life group that wants to change women's hearts without government involvement. I met them at a Tea Party.

M. Simon   ·  August 19, 2010 11:39 PM

Take sex away from people. Make it forbidden, evil. Limit it to ritualistic breeding.

You can make a case that serfdom in the Middle Ages was underground slavery.

Joseph Hertzlinger   ·  August 22, 2010 1:04 AM


I somehow pasted another quote (on another blog) that I considered commenting on.

I meant to quote:

Says that the slavery abolitionists got abortion banned in the various states. Of course that is not true. Oh. They did get laws passed. But that just drove the practice underground. It did not stop it.

You can make a case that serfdom in the Middle Ages was underground slavery.

Joseph Hertzlinger   ·  August 22, 2010 1:13 AM

Serfdom was above ground slavery.

Veeshir   ·  August 22, 2010 2:27 PM

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