Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Daniel Maguire on Mississippi Personhood Bill: Making God Look Bad

Due to the way in which religion saturates all aspects of American culture, including its politics, it's hard to keep up with the latest developments in religion-and-politics news, especially as the 2012 election cycle revs up.  One of the debates I'm finding particularly intriguing now is the one about the "personhood" ballot measure on which Mississippians will be voting in a week's time.  If it passes, the bill will define all fertilized human zygotes as persons.  Its goal is to outlaw abortion, period, and it will also effectively outlaw any form of contraception that operates as an abortifacient, such as the so-called "morning-after" pill.

Catholic ethicist Daniel Maguire offers illuminating commentary on the bill at Religion Dispatches today.  As he notes, since the bill will outlaw abortion as an option ever to be considered or permitted even when a woman's life is in danger, it will make it safer in Mississippi to be a "fertilized-egg-person" (FEP) than a woman.  

Maguire notes the thorny theological-ethical problems that ensue when we try to establish a definition of the zygote as a human person and then impose this by legal fiat on the whole population, regardless of what many people believe to the contrary.  There's, first of all, the incontrovertible scientific evidence that the vast majority of zygotes, of FEPs, never make it to the point of uterine implanation--implying, if every fertilized egg is a human person, that God is an abortionist on a grand scale, since God has designed human biology in such a way that only a tiny percentage of zygotes reach the stage of uterine implantation.  

There's also, as Maguire notes, the considerable consensus among many of the world's religious traditions--Catholicism included, in its classical expressions--that the ontological status of a fetus which has reached the stage of implantation and of what used to be called "quickening" is different from the status of a zygote.  Since the 19th century, the Catholic magisterium has sought to deal with the scientific evidence that calls into question the definition of a fertilized egg as a person, and with the strong Catholic traditions that make ethical-ontological distinctions between the zygote and the ensouled fetus, by declaring through fiat that the conceptus, the fertilized egg, has the ontological status of a human person.  And so, in a certain sense, it is the Catholic magisterial fiat that will be put to legal tests if Mississippi passes its personhood legislation--as the state is anticipated to do.

And here are some of the legal problems (and mind-boggling challenges to basic logic) that will then be on the table, if the bill passes, according to Maguire: 

What a welter of problems arise when you oust logic. Right out of the gate, away with any contraceptives that prevent implantation of the FEP. Also unthinkable under such a law is medical experimentation on embryos. Hey, those are people you’re experimenting on! Even microscopic persons have rights. Fertility clinics? Shut your doors. You can’t kill FEP’s just because you want to make a baby. 
Also, how do the poor IRS people handle those who add FEPs as dependents on their tax returns? The Census Bureau will also be hobbled in estimating the actual population of a district or a state to establish the number of congresspersons and so forth. And what do you do to the woman who insists on driving in the carpool lane because she is pregnant? And don’t forget those bereaved heirs who must divide their inheritance with the not yet born, but otherwise fully-fledged FEPs, in the family? 
But, can you believe it, it gets worse.
Science tells us that most FEPs never make it to implantation. Most of them die before they get to the only place where they can grow: the womb. We all know that persons, even dead persons, deserve respect and, if they are dead, a decent burial. Pause for a moment to contemplate the staggering problems this will present to funeral directors! Just finding those deceased little FEPs will be a whopper of a challenge. The law will have to help. The Attorney General of Mississippi will have to order checks on the menstrual flow of all sexually active women just on the chance that there may be therein a deceased citizen (or two) of the sovereign State of Mississippi.

As I've said before, if the Catholic magisterium is really serious about defending the sanctity of life, it needs to find ways to promote a consistent ethic of life (as opposed to a zygote-centered ethic of life) in the secular cultures it addresses with its religious message.  The most obvious and important way it can do that is by assuring that the church itself exemplifies respect for life, across the board, in how it deals with people and how it lives.

Ordering people by divine fiat to think as you yourself think, and then trying to finagle laws and outlaw dissent, is perhaps not the most effective way of establishing strong, consistent ethical values in most cultural contexts.  Nattering on about how sacred human life is and how we undermine all respect for life when we don't recognize that every fertilized egg is a human person doesn't build an effective cultural consensus to respect human life across the board, particularly when we focus more or less exclusively on the value of zygotes while ignoring the  worth of many already-born human beings.

The more the U.S. Catholic bishops, in collusion with religious-right leaders in states like Mississippi, try to use abortion (and, now, contraception) as a wedge issue in political battles designed to serve the interests of one particular political party whose record on most life issues is abysmal, and the more they try to force all citizens of a pluralistic secular democracy to abide by their definition of how and when human personhood begins, the less likely they are to succeed in fostering strong and consistent respect for life in American culture.  If that is and ever has been, really, the goal of the anti-abortion movement in the Catholic church and the religious right . . . . 

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