Voters in Mississippi recently rejected a "personhood amendment" that would have declared that life legally begins at the moment of fertilization. Had it passed, all abortion as well as some methods of birth control would have become a felony.
Despite this setback, similar amendments (though with some revisions) are in process to land on the ballot in 11 other states, with the support of Personhood USA. Defining life as concurrent with conception is also the aim of the Sanctity of Human Life Act, which resurfaces every few years, most recently in early 2011.
Personhood legislation generally applies the term "person" to "every human being regardless of the method of creation," and defines a human being as "a member of the species homo sapiens at any stage of development."
Translation by Dr. Seuss: As one supporter's sign reads, "A person is a person—no matter how small."
Whether or not this becomes a politically effective tactic, the personhood movement may succeed in shifting the debate over abortion from one of rights to one of life. A basic common ground between pro-choice and pro-life (except for extremist assassins of abortion doctors) is the kindergarten premise that it's wrong to kill. If our common starting line is that killing a newborn baby is a crime, how far back can we go together?
Apparently, not all the way back to fertilization. Even pro-life groups in the Bible belt of Mississippi proved reluctant to embrace that idea. Critics on both sides expressed concern about potential unintended consequences of the legislation. It is also a difficult sell, culturally. After all, what pro-life group puts an image of two merged cells on their web banner or protest sign?
We tend to connect emotionally and intuitively with the human-looking fetus, at a later stage of development. As Wisconsin legislator Jeremy Thiesfeldt affirmed, "They have heartbeats. They have fingers and toes, and I think it's pretty clear that this is a human being." It would be a significant advance to have a conversation about whether something that looks human really is human—let alone a cluster of unimplanted, undifferentiated cells.
The most important contribution we can make, both to protecting those in the womb and healing our national abortion divide, is to strive for the affirmation that life matters. Pro-life folks need to acknowledge lack of moral clarity over when, exactly, God breathes the mystery of life into the form being crafted in "the secret place" (Psalm 139:15). Pro-choice folks need to acknowledge that at some point a fetus does become a person, and that it does not threaten women's liberty to try to define that point.
The personhood amendment in Mississippi failed in part because it was clumsily written and carelessly promoted, but also because it overreached. It made no provisions for rape, incest, or the health of the mother. It made using some forms of birth control the legal equivalent of a school shooting spree.
Nevertheless, I believe the personhood movement is on the right track, if it can become more responsible and responsive to the uncertainties involved. We should start, at least, by focusing on the period when a fetus becomes viable outside the womb. The Born-Alive Infants Protection Act, which extends personhood to a living infant after a failed abortion, may be a good launching pad for this effort.
The life of a person matters. Affirming that doesn't make it an easy matter to define or protect persons. But it is the only way to begin that vital work.