This post is drawn from Ari Armstrong’s and my new policy paper: The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception. I’m currently posting the full paper as a series of blog posts. You can read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.
The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception
By Ari Armstrong and Diana Hsieh, Ph.D
A policy paper written for the Coalition for Secular Government (www.SecularGovernment.us)
Published on August 31, 2010
Individual Rights and Abortion
Today’s “Pro-Choice” Rhetoric
Today’s most prominent defenders of abortion rights follow in the footsteps of Roe v. Wade. By and large, they offer superficial and pragmatic defenses of abortion rights based on vague appeals to privacy, coupled with accounts of the harms inflicted by abortion bans.
The websites of the two most prominent pro-choice advocacy groups in America–Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America–offer no substantive defense of the right to abortion. They simply assert a broadly pro-choice position, without grappling with the difficult moral and legal questions raised by abortion. For example, the website of Planned Parenthood’s “Action Center” offers the following as their sole defense of “abortion access”:
Our primary goal is prevention–reducing the number of unintended pregnancies, especially the alarmingly high number of teenage pregnancies, in the United States. At the same time, to protect their health and the health of their families, women facing an unintended pregnancy must have access to safe, legal abortion services without interference from the government. Decisions about childbearing should be made by a woman in consultation with her family and doctor–not by politicians.
Only a few of the organization’s posted “Research Papers” concern abortion, and those that do focus solely on the history of abortion rights, the safety of abortion, and abortion statistics. Similarly, NARAL’s only substantive document pertaining to abortion rights posted to its website is an eleven-page “fact sheet” on “The Safety of Legal Abortion and the Hazards of Illegal Abortion.”
The failure of these two most prominent pro-choice groups to address the philosophic questions surrounding abortion does not bode well for abortion rights in America, particularly in light of the rise of a fervent “personhood” movement. That’s because neither vague appeals to the privacy rights of pregnant women nor the harms wrought by abortion bans are of any importance if conception creates a person with a right to life. Why not?
First, if embryos and fetuses are persons, then a pregnant woman cannot claim that her decision to terminate her pregnancy should be respected as “private.” She would be obliged to respect the rights of the innocent person within her–and if she failed to do so, the state could and should intervene. To seek an abortion would not be a “private medical decision” but rather akin to hiring a hit man.
Second, if embryos and fetuses are persons, then the pregnant woman would be obliged to endure any financial burdens, health problems, or emotional strain caused by the pregnancy. The right to life of the embryo or fetus would override every such concern, except perhaps the woman’s own life. To abort an embryo or fetus due to inconvenience or hardship in pregnancy would be just as horrifying as suffocating one’s elderly parents due to difficulties in providing them care.
Third, if embryos and fetuses are persons, then women who suffer terrible complications from illegal abortions have only themselves to blame. To demand legal abortion on that basis would be as bizarre as legalizing assault or rape to prevent perpetrators of those crimes from injuring themselves. The law should protect the victim of the crime (i.e., the embryo or fetus) not the perpetrator (i.e., the pregnant woman).
In sum, the standard pro-choice arguments for abortion rights, drawn from Roe v. Wade, cannot withstand the basic claim of “personhood” advocates that fertilization creates a new human person with its own right to life. As Christopher Kurka, the sponsor of the “personhood” initiative in Alaska said, “If…we recognize the unborn as persons, then a woman’s right to choose or a right to privacy doesn’t matter [just like] she doesn’t have a right to kill her child after it’s born.”
The opinion of the Court in Roe v. Wade acknowledges its own weakness against “personhood” claims openly: “If this suggestion of personhood is established, the [pro-choice] case, of course, collapses, for the fetus’ right to life would then be guaranteed specifically by the [Fourteenth] Amendment.” The advocates of “personhood” have made much of that concession, citing it frequently as the source of their legal strategy. In light of that, the dependence of pro-choice groups on the precedents set by and arguments of Roe v. Wade must be regarded as dangerous. If overturned–or even challenged on its basic assumptions–abortion rights would be left without any defense. That is the result the “personhood” movement strives to accomplish.
Unfortunately, the standard-bearers of the pro-choice movement have not risen to the challenge posed by the “personhood” movement–not even when faced with Colorado’s Amendment 48 in 2008 and Amendment 62 in 2010. Instead, they have declined to state any definite positions on the extent of abortion rights or offer any substantive arguments for such rights.
For example, “Protect Families, Protect Choices,” the major pro-choice coalition against “personhood” measures in Colorado, effectively campaigned against Amendment 48 in 2008 on the basis of its practical consequences. Yet its often-repeated campaign slogans–”It Simply Goes Too Far” in 2008 and “It Still Goes Too Far” in 2010–cede moral ground to the opponents of abortion. They suggest a compromise, as if some restrictions on abortion might be proper, albeit not the full ban demanded by “personhood” advocates. Perhaps the embryo or fetus should be granted legal rights in the third trimester. Perhaps abortions should be permitted only in cases of rape, incest, deformity, or risk to the life of the woman. Yet surely coalition members like NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado and Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains would oppose any such restrictions on abortion.
Even when directly challenged to state a position on when rights begin in human life, spokespersons for “Protect Families, Protect Choices” skirted the issue. For example, in an online chat for the Rocky Mountain News, Crystal Clinkenbeard said:
It is incredibly hard to describe a blanket time when constitutional rights should apply. Reasonable people disagree passionately about when life begins. Amendment 48 does nothing to [resolve] that difficult social issue. Instead, it is more divisive. That kind of decision needs to be left to individuals to follow their own moral, philosophical beliefs.
That answer is not mere evasion. It’s wrong in a deeper way, in that it suggests that abortion rights can be founded on skepticism and relativism.
The most basic function of any government is to protect rights, and that requires constitutional provisions and laws specifying the nature and extent of rights. For the government to adopt a seemingly neutral stance on claims of rights, such that people would have to act based on their own opinions about who has what rights, would be anarchy. In theory, the pro-choice woman would be entitled to terminate her pregnancy, in accordance with her beliefs–just as the anti-abortion activist would be entitled to stop her by force, in accordance with his beliefs. The result would be violent conflict. In practice, however, such neutrality about rights usually amounts to an implicit denial of rights, in that the government would refrain from recognizing or protecting them. Yet the government might attempt to accommodate opposing views–and hence adopt a compromise position–exactly as it did in Roe v. Wade. Then, instead of the enjoying the benefit of sound jurisprudence, a society must endure persistent simmering political conflict.
“Pro-choice” advocates may seem to achieve their goals by this approach, because embryos and fetuses are not granted rights. Yet far from securing abortion rights, these skeptical arguments undermine their very foundation. Skepticism is an illusory basis for rights, easily defeated by even barely plausible arguments for “personhood.” Moreover, such skepticism sets a dangerous precedent. Just imagine, for example, the violence that would be unleashed against innocent people if a government allowed people to “follow their own moral, philosophical beliefs” about the rights of women, gays, immigrants, and the elderly on the grounds that their rights constitute a “difficult social issue.”
The government must take a stand on claims of rights. If embryos and fetuses are persons with rights, the government must actively protect them from harm. Conversely, if no such rights exist, then the government must actively protect women seeking abortions and the doctors who perform them from obstruction and violence by anti-abortion activists. People are only entitled to “follow their own moral, philosophical beliefs” in choosing whether to terminate a pregnancy or bring it to term if embryos and fetuses are not persons with a right to life. Yet that is the very question that these prominent pro-choice activists do not discuss, even when directly challenged by the “personhood” movement.
Ultimately, “personhood” measures are not wrong because they are too extreme, too divisive, or too intrusive–as typical pro-choice activists are wont to claim. Instead, they’re wrong because embryos and fetuses are not human persons with the right to life. To understand why that’s so, we must examine the core arguments for the “personhood” of embryos and fetuses.