ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP) — Mississippi has become ground zero in the debate over the legal status of the preborn. Citizens in the Magnolia State will go to the polls Tuesday to vote on Measure 26, a ballot initiative that if passed will amend the state constitution and ascribe the status of person to “every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.”
For pro-life advocates the proposed amendment is not revolutionary. Most who advocate for the protection of pre-born children would agree that life begins at conception. What is relatively new is seeking to apply the legal status of person to the preborn, which has some abortion advocates seeing red.
“When does a person actually become a person? Seriously, is this the question we now face?” opined columnist Funmi F. Franklin in an opinion piece blasting Measure 26 that appeared in the Jackson Free Press.
Ms. Franklin was clearly unhappy about the possibility that the ability to obtain an abortion — in her words “our constitutional right to choice” — could be curtailed. She also seemed to blame pro-lifers for introducing philosophy into the equation.
But she only has her fellow abortion rights advocates to blame for the current philosophical debate over the personhood of the unborn.
The abortion debate became intensely serious in 1973 when the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade that abortion upon demand was legal throughout the United States. In those early arguments, abortion rights advocates insisted that the pre-born child was not a living being but merely a collection of tissue.
As medical technology advanced, a seeming window into the womb was created that dispelled the pro-abortion position that the baby in the womb was not a living being. Pro-life advocates used science to prove the pre-born were very much alive.
With medical science doing more to undermine the pro-abortion argument than to advance it, abortion advocates turned to philosophy in an attempt to bolster their position. “The fetus may be alive,” they argued, “but it was in no way a person and thus could still be aborted.” Thus the debate on personhood ensued.
While abortion advocates felt fairly sure that the divide between a person and a non-person would be birth, they were not prepared for liberal philosophers that would further muddy the water of the debate.
Enter the likes of Peter Singer. A tenured professor of bioethics at Princeton University, Singer wrote in his book “Practical Ethics,” that “human babies are not born self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time. They are not persons…. The life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, or a dog, or a chimpanzee.” It is this view that leads Singer to conclude that parents who have given birth to a handicapped child should have a month to decide whether or not they will allow it to live.
By adopting a philosophical approach to the debate over abortion, advocates of the practice opened up an existential can of worms that displayed a callousness to the reality of the pre-born. The debate is now over whose rights are more preeminent — a woman or her pre-born child.
As long as a pre-born child is not regarded as a person, it can be killed like an unwanted dog. There is one caveat: A stray dog would have animal rights advocates howling in its defense, but not so in the case of an unborn baby. If the child in the womb is declared a person, then the issue of taking his or her life becomes a serious legal issue.
While the argument for or against Mississippi’s Measure 26 is rooted in philosophy, make no mistake it is a legal issue. But let’s be clear: All law is based on, or rooted in, morality and philosophy. It is not a matter of if morality and/or philosophy will be legislated but rather from what perspective will it be legislated.
The idea of personhood is already addressed in the legal realm. According to “Black’s Law Dictionary,” 5th edition, the concept of person is applied to “a human being (i.e. natural person).” Further, the dictionary explains, “A person is recognized by law as such, not because he is human, but because rights and duties are ascribed to him.”
A person is recognized as such because of the rights ascribed to him or her — so says “Black’s Law Dictionary, so says the law. The real question in Mississippi’s Measure 26 is whether or not a woman’s right to choose will trump a pre-born baby’s right to life.
Mississippi voters will decide Tuesday whether or not the status of personhood will be extended to the pre-born. If Measure 26 does pass, it will be a significant step toward securing the right to life for persons still developing in their mother’s wombs.
Kelly Boggs is a weekly columnist for Baptist Press and editor of the Baptist Message (www.baptistmessage.com), newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.
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