From the New York Times, a report on a proposed constitutional amendment in Mississippi that would declare a fertilized human egg to be a legal person. As the Times points out, the Personhood Amendment would effectively make abortion, as well as contraceptive methods like the morning-after pill that prevent the uterine implantation of a fertilized egg, a form of murder under state law. According to the Times, the amendment’s supporters speak in frankly religious terms. One is quoted as saying that the Amendment is “an opportunity for people to say that we’re made in the image of God.”

A couple of points. First, notwithstanding the Rawlsian critique, theological arguments like this are actually fairly rare in American politics, for understandable reasons. As a practical matter, if you want to persuade people in a pluralistic society, you’ve got to make arguments that appeal to different religious and ideological commitments; you’ve got to speak in an idiom that includes rather than excludes. (This may not be the case in Mississippi, concededly, where the amendment is popular and has the support of both the Democratic and Republican gubernatorial candidates). This explains why the right-to-life movement in America tends not to speak in strictly theological terms, but to rely on arguments from reason and, lately, embryonic development. One might dismiss this as pretextual, but that would be unfair. People, not just religious people, have a variety of motives for their politics; arguments should stand or fall on their own terms.

Second, some religious people who oppose abortion also oppose the Personhood Amendment on pragmatic grounds. (Some, to be sure, believe the amendment is simply too extreme). These opponents understand that the amendment represents a frontal assault on the Supreme Court’s abortion jurisprudence that is likely to backfire. The Catholic Diocese of Jackson, Mississippi, for example, declined to endorse the Personhood Amendment, arguing that “the push for a state amendment could ultimately harm our efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade.” A nice reminder that translating religious commitment into political action is a complicated thing, and that prudence remains a cardinal virtue. – MLM


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