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USA: Does Mississippi Really Respect Life?

[Note: This piece was published prior to the November 8th vote, but is re-posted here for the analysis it offers.]

On Nov. 8 Mississippi voters will decide whether a fertilized egg and other forms of life in utero are persons. A proposed amendment to the state constitution, Proposition 26 would define a person as “every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.” The goal of the ballot measure is to force a legal challenge to Roe vs. Wade and open the door to making abortion illegal.

For those who do believe in the sanctity of life and the dignity and rights of persons, the Mississippi initiative raises many questions, chief among them: How are those of us who are persons to treat fertilized eggs, as well as born persons?

Mississippi is perhaps the last state with any standing to extend personhood to fetuses. A fertilized egg in Mississippi, should it be born, has one of the worst prognoses for a dignified life in the United States. What will that fertilized egg, once it is born, discover about how Mississippi treats persons?

The state ranks last among all states in health and third for the highest rate of diabetes and high blood pressure . It has the lowest per capita personal income and an unemployment rate of 10.6 percent. It is the last in academic achievement. More than 1 out of 5 people live in poverty. The state is second in the nation in terms of the imprisonment ratio (749 prisoners per 100,000 people.) If you are black, your chances of dying at birth or shortly thereafter are pretty high: fourteen out of every 1000 black infants ( 6.8 for whites) born die in childbirth or the first year of their lives. Your mother is more likely to die delivering you than mothers in 44 other states. If fertilized eggs could be afraid, surely the thought of being born in Mississippi would be traumatizing.

For people of faith, these are real ethical questions about what it means for those of us who have moral agency in terms of how we treat others. At the theological level, personhood is far from settled; even defining who or what is a person is subject to much disagreement. The Supreme Court understood this when it wrote in the Roe decision:“We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man’s knowledge, is not in a position to speculate.”

Contrary to frequent claims by those opposed to abortion that advances in medicine now make absolutely and definitively clear that developing human lives in utero are persons at fertilization, most scientists, philosophers and theologians are not convinced and a public referendum is not going to do the trick.

While the ballot measure was written by Christians, it has little formal support from religious denominations. In part that is because more sophisticated religious leaders opposed to abortion think the ‘personhood’ approach is a bad strategy. The amendment, if passed, will surely end up before the Supreme Court, and even those members of the court willing to overturn Roe are not likely to use a flawed definition of a person as a foundation for rescinding the case.

But there are theological problems with defining fertilized eggs, embryos, and fetuses as persons. Of the world’s major religions (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism and Confucianism) only Catholicism formally forbids all directly intended abortion --and that is not because it has dogmatically held that the fetus is a person. From the casual political rhetoric of the U.S. bishops and the pope, one might believe that fertilized egg=person is a core teaching of the church, but a more careful reading of church documents show no such certitude. The most honest expression of the Catholic theological position is that given that we do not know when the fertilized egg becomes a person, we should treat it as if it were a person, just in case it is one.

Three passages from the Catechism are telling. Note the use of the term “human life” and “human being” rather than person and the explicit demand that all human life be treated as a person but no statement that it is a person. Also note that the reason given for prohibiting abortion and the sacredness of life is because it is created by God and has a special relationship to God, not because it is a person.

2258 “Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being.”

2270 “Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person - among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.”

2274 “Since it must be treated from conception as a person, the embryo must be defended in its integrity, cared for, and healed, as far as possible, like any other human being.”

Other religions have grappled with the question of whether the fetus is a person and concluded that it is not. For many Muslims, the fetus is not considered infused with life until after the fourth month of pregnancy and different schools of Islam permit abortions for different reasons during that period of time. In Buddhism, all killing is to be avoided, but the Dalai Lama has noted that each case of pregnancy has to be judged on its merits and abortion is sometimes the right thing to do, even for overpopulation and in cases of fetal conditions incompatible with life. For many Jews, abortion is recommended if continuing a pregnancy would threaten the woman’s health or detract from her ability to care for existing children, among other reasons. All religions treat abortion seriously --all assert the “sanctity of life”--but somehow that does not translate into believing that fetuses are persons.

One might even conclude that a state declaring that a fertilized egg is a person is actually violating the religious freedom of the faiths that teach otherwise.

Rather than calling fertilized eggs persons, people of faith could better spend their time caring for the already born: children, the elderly, the poor, the stranger in our midst.

Let’s be clear: In the face the decisions that Mississippi has made about how to treat persons, Mississippi’s Personhood Amendment is an act of cynicism not compassion or respect for life.


Frances Kissling is a visiting scholar at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania where she is writing a book on Ethics and Abortion. A Catholic feminist, she was the president of Catholics for Choice for 25 years. 

Kissling writes for On Faith as part of our expert roundtable on the Mississippi personhood initiative, a constitutional referendum on whether or not to call a fertilized human egg a ‘person,’ thus giving it legal rights and protection. Read Colleen Carroll Campbell of EWTN , who writes,Personhood begins when life begins, Fr. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life on taking ‘personhood’ backSarah Brown of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy with, Why personhood rather than pregnancy prevention? . Cast your vote in our poll: Should personhood start at fertilization?

Article License: Copyright - Article License Holder: Washington Post


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