May 9, 2012

The politics of 'personhood'

Two questions about the efforts to pass "personhood" amendments:

1. Is there a reason the pro-life definition of a person has to be as unclear as "any human being from the beginning of the biological development of that human being to natural death"?
I'm not an expert in the legal requirements for the language of initiatives, but the above seems to imply, for one thing, that a person continues to be a person after unnatural death. Unless "natural death" has some other meaning?

More importantly, for the purposes of supporters, the definition hinges on "biological development," which I know is supposed to mean the fertilization of an egg, but couldn't it also be extended backwards, so that "biological development" also meant the biological development of the egg and the sperm separately? If not, isn't it because the "biological development" is of "that human being," but doesn't that just recapitulate the debate about when life begins, meaning the definition is tantamount to "life begins when life begins," and not actually very helpful?

In Mississippi, the personhood amendment kind of doubles the ambiguity by declaring a person to be a person "from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the functional equivalent thereof."

If there's any explanation of what the functional equivalent of fertilization and/or cloning is, I have not seen it, nor can I imagine what it might be.

Contrast it with the Catholic definition given in  the Donum Vitae, presumably acceptable to pro-life advocates and remarkably clear: "The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life."

The initiatives definitions of personhood seems to be very ambiguous, badly worded, and kind of self-confoundingly vague. But maybe I'm missing something?

2. Wouldn't efforts to criminalize abortion be more successful if they were more modest? Politically, why not take a gradualist approach?
However absolutist one is on the morality of an issue, politics are pragmatic, and require coalitions. I understand the ethical arguments of opposing all abortion, and why compromising seems abhorrent, but, presumably, fewer abortions would be better than more, and one could make common cause with those who, say, are opposed to abortion after the first trimester, or fetal viability, or "quickening," or opposed to abortion after implantation, thus allowing for the forms of birth control that stop the zygote in the process of cell division.

My question isn't about the argument opposing all forms of abortion vs. the arguments opposing most but making exceptions. My question is about the politics of it. Given that these measures have failed in number of places, and at least in part, like in Mississippi, failed because the efforts alienated otherwise sympathetic allies who felt the measures "went too far," why not stake a step back?

After Mississippi, why didn't the personhood movement recalibrate for Oklahoma, where an initiative was struck down by the courts before it was passed, or for Georgia, where efforts are just beginning?

Is there a strategic advantage to losing that I just don't see?

To be clear: These are not questions about abortion, per se, but about process and strategy. And they are real questions I'm saying I don't know the answer to: Is there a reason the definitions aren't clearer and simpler? Are their political benefits to not taking a more gradualist, coalition-building approach?