Personhood amendment shows that ‘pro-life’ not a monolith, even on Roe v. Wade

Melinda Henneberger
Reporter November 14, 2011

Abortion rights supporters cheering over the defeat of the “personhood” amendment in Mississippi tend to see last week’s vote as a clear-cut setback for those who disagree with them on this hottest of hot-button issues.

“The pro-choicers won handily,” Amanda Marcotte wrote in Slate. “I wonder if the Mississippi ‘personhood’ and Ohio union votes reflect an electoral shift in a more progressive direction,” tweeted New York Times columnist Nick Kristof. “Here was overreach by the right-to-life movement,” wrote Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne.

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011. View Archive

Yes, more than 55 percent of voters in one of the reddest states in the country rejected the amendment, which says life begins at fertilization — and could have outlawed certain forms of birth control and in-vitro fertilization. Only, those who identify themselves as “pro-life” are the ones who voted the thing down; that’s who lives in Mississippi. (Two-thirds of Mississippians identified themselves that way in the most recent Pew Research Center poll two years ago.) As the Biloxi-based SunHerald.com reported, “doubts raised by prominent conservatives, religious leaders and doctors” had a major impact on the vote.

This was a family fight, in other words — a difference of opinion among those who identify that way, over both strategy and theology, because not everyone with moral qualms about abortion has those same concerns about birth control. According to the Pew poll, only a third of those who identify as “pro-life” believe abortion should be illegal in all circumstances.

(In fact, even the Washington Post’s designated style of calling people either abortion rights supporters or opponents leaves no room for the reality that not all who see themselves as “pro-life” even oppose the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion Roe v. Wade, either, because they see overturning it as so unlikely or for other tactical reasons. As the Pepperdine legal scholar and Obama supporter (now his former ambassador to Malta) Doug Kmiec argued in ’08, overturning Roe wouldn’t necessarily prevent a single abortion, both because that result would kick the issue back to the states and because legislation has never stopped abortion. )

The fact that both the Catholic bishops and the National Right to Life group sat out the Mississippi personhood vote is an elephantine, hiding-in-plain-sight clue that those in the “personhood” movement might hold a minority view even within antiabortion rights circles.

Certainly among my Catholic friends who call themselves “pro-life” that’s the case: “I think the term ‘personhood’ is a misappropriation of the whole notion of the dignity of the human person,” says Albany-based Catholic blogger, church secretary and theology student Fran Rossi Szpylczyn.“If it had passed, it would have been a hollow triumph because it wouldn’t do a thing to change minds and hearts” — either on the relatively narrow issue of abortion or the broader, harder, more radical understanding of ‘respect for life’ as throwing an umbrella over even those who disagree.

Abortion rights advocates sometimes argue that opponents who talk like my friend Fran are actually pro-abortion rights, too, but are simply too dim or devout to know it.

Slate’s Marcotte, for example, wrote: “Anti-choice activists look at polling data showing that a slight majority of Americans claim to be ‘pro-life’ and declare victory, but what those polls really reflect is not people’s genuine opinions on reproductive rights so much as the power of the anti-choice movement to cow people into cursory agreements with them out of fear of being seen as impious.”

Rossi Szpylczyn, however, says that as a progressive, far more of the peer pressure she’s gotten to conform comes from her friends who support abortion rights, some of whom are now former friends: “I get, ‘The Church ate your brain!’ I was sexually compromised as a child, so you think I don’t get my body is my own?”

For now, one of her contributions to the conversation is this: “I sit there at my little rectory desk — the best job I ever had — and say to people who come in and want to talk about this, ‘I invite you not to encounter every person who identifies as pro-choice as your enemy.’ ”

That’s not, of course, the approach of the advocates and fundraisers we typically hear from on this issue. But even some of them, as I said, essentially stayed home from the “personhood” discussion.

If we listened even a little bit to those who disagree with us on this topic, maybe we’d know that. Meanwhile, I watch those like my friend Fran who are focused on changing the conversation rather than the law and think changing the law might be easier.

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