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Georgetown/ On Faith
Posted at 09:46 AM ET, 11/09/2011

Why the Mississippi personhood amendment self-imploded

Amendment 26 supporter Joyce Haskins, with her grandchild Landry Bruce, waves to passersby outside the voting booths at the Oxford Conference Center in Oxford, Miss. on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2011. (Bruce Newman - AP)
Mississippi’s “Personhood Amendment” self-imploded and succumbed to an unexpected defeat last night. Analysts are already dissecting the reasons for the collapse of an initiative that seemed a sure thing just a few weeks ago.

Yet this setback should not obscure a crucial truth: the hard Christian Right, which sponsored the Amendment 26, is the most swashbucklingest social movement out there. They will pull out all the stops, give you the razzle dazzle, double-down on doubling down. And, yes, they will be back, bigger and better than ever.

Secular believers and nonbelievers had better understand their antics and resolve. Expect one thousand Amendment 26s in the future. And that’s because this type of over-the-top activism is, currently, a win-win proposition for social conservatives.

Let’s be clear: the endeavor to define a fertilized egg as a human being endowed with all of the rights of what we would normally consider a citizen was a preposterous proposition from the start. It was simply insane from a variety of ethical, theological, libertarian, medical, metaphysical and even practical perspectives.
Megan Loria holds a sign urging voters to vote NO on the so-called personhood amendment to the Mississippi constitution, outside the old National Guard Armory in Oxford, Miss. on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2011. (Bruce Newman - AP)

Leave aside all of that. The greatest absurdity consisted of the “compliance” component of this amendment. For how exactly could the state of Mississippi prevent and subsequently prosecute zygote homicide? Anecdotal evidence notwithstanding, most women are not aware of the precise moment when fertilization occurs. Other than deputizing roving ultra-sound technicians to perform random checks, other than forcing women of child-bearing age to take pop pregnancy tests in the street how could the state protect personhood when the state does not know if the so-called person even exists?

The sheer chutzpah of the Amendment 26 reminds me of another recent Christian Right outrage expedition. A few weeks back, I wrote about the campaign to force New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg to let representatives of religious denominations--guess which religious denominations led the charge?-- speak at the 9/11 commemoration ceremonies.

The initiative had little in the way of support from any religious groups other than Evangelical Christians (a similar storyline--note this-- seems to have crystallized in Mississippi; when Catholics don’t buy in conservative Protestants are far less effective. Are you listening secular activists?).

In retrospect it wasn’t much of a story to begin with. The media was rooked by what appeared to be a PR stunt (The New York Times devoted a front-page story to the 9/11 protest; though, then again, it did the same for Amendment 26 and in so doing drew national attention to what could have been a devastating sleeper cell of a law).

For our purposes the New York Intervention is to be filed under the heading “Christian Right Buccaneering.” After all, what would have been more David-and-Goliath-y than forcing the mayor of the most secular city in America to bend to the will of a few Bible-thumpin’ pastors from the Ozarks?

The Gotham Hellcat Brigade of the Christian Right probably knew they would lose that fight. In a similar manner, the proponents of Amendment 26 probably also knew their cause was doomed once everyone from parents of in-vitro children, to physicians, to victims of rape, found out what it was actually about (that many of these folks were committed Christians is an interesting sidebar).

My contention is that while these activists may certainly hope (and pray) for victory, they understand their immediate task as tilting national conversations to a terrain upon which the radical religious right can better manouver.

Rest assured that when September 1st 2012 rolls around in New York a roiling media conversation about the city’s “aggressive godlessness,” will put the mayor on the defensive (Anticipated major newsweekly headline: NEW YORK: THE NEW SODOM?).

Similarly, in Mississippi and elsewhere the new parameters of the abortion debate will be defined not by “pro-life versus pro-choice” but “pro-personhood versus pro-life.” If that shift actually ensues, then Amendment 26 was a stunning victory.

It was the Christian Right’s ability to completely re-configure public dialogues and perspectives that was the mission accomplished of its most recent blustering.

By Jacques Berlinerblau  |  09:46 AM ET, 11/09/2011

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