By Alan Bean
Personhood USA, the group arguing that personhood begins the moment of conception, is promoting itself as a latter day embodiment of the civil rights movement. Days after a “fetal personhood” amendment was rejected by 60% of Mississippi voters, Personhood Florida’s Bryan Longworth is undaunted. William Wilberforce didn’t end slavery in England the first time he tried, Longworth says, and his group isn’t about to give up simply because voters in the most conservative state in America aren’t buying the fetal personhood argument.
The reference to Wilberforce caught my attention. Nancy and I saw Amazing Grace in an Amarillo movie theatre in 2007. We were weighing our options at the time. Did we really want to stay in the criminal justice reform fight? Sure, we had won some important victories, but when you live in the Texas Panhandle you have few illusions. Every struggling rural community of any size is sustained by a state prison and there appears to be zero support for ending mass incarceration. When you have repeatedly slammed your head into a brick wall you sometimes think how nice it would feel to stop.
Then we saw Amazing Grace, the movie that dramatizes William Wilberforce’s two-decade fight to end British participation in the slave trade. When the movie ended I began to sob. I am not an emotional person and I rarely cry in public. But I didn’t have much choice in the matter; the emotion started deep in my soul, gravitated to my chest and couldn’t be stopped. My weeping was soon harmonizing with Nancy’s hearty laughter. Like the old Joni Mitchell song says, “laughin’ and cryin’, you know it’s the same release.”
I’m not sure what the other people in the theatre made of our emotional point and counterpoint (and at the time I didn’t really care), but I knew God was telling me to keep at it. That would mean leaving Tulia, Texas and moving to a major center like Dallas where it was possible (at least in theory) to build a base of support and grow the work. The transition to the DFW area was swift and emotionally draining, but we made it.
I have no difficulty believing that the Personhood USA people are sincere in their beliefs, but they aren’t an extension of the civil rights movement and they don’t walk in the footsteps of William Wilberforce. The natural constituency of Personhood USA is the same demographic that opposed civil rights and continues to insist that slavery and Jim Crow weren’t as bad as liberals suppose. The 40% of Mississippians who voted for the fetal personhood amendment were mostly conservative white people who correctly identified the fetal personhood initiative as a culture war skirmish designed to attack liberalism at its most vulnerable point.
Abortion is a terrific culture war issue because it pits women’s rights against the rights of the unborn. I have heard a few pro-choice people argue that abortion is a positive good, but few Americans are convinced. The lesser of evils in some instances, yes; an unambiguous good, never. Women agonize over the decision to terminate a pregnancy and pro-choice advocates argue (persuasively, in my opinion) that women must be allowed to make this difficult call in consultation with whomever they choose to consult. Like the old song says, “you got to walk that lonesome valley, you got to walk it by yourself, nobody else can walk it for you.”
Abortion is a moral issue, to be sure, and strong arguments have emerged on both sides of the debate. There were never any good moral arguments for treating human beings as personal property or for denying basic freedoms to people of color.
Historically, the folks who care the most for the unborn have ignored the plight of the post-born. I have deep respect for those who care about poor children as much as they care for the zygote. That’s a consistent and defensible moral position. The Roman Catholic Church teaches a seamless theology of life that involves strong opposition to the death penalty and a skeptical approach to war. Southern Baptists, on the other hand, were generally indifferent to the abortion debate (even endorsing Roe v. Wade in 1973) until abortion emerged as a culture war wedge issue.
If the fetal personhood people wish to be seen as the heirs of William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King Jr., they must develop a consistent moral philosophy that applies across the board. So long as the pro-life community remains indifferent to the plight of the poor, the unemployed, the disenfranchised felon, the rape victim and the victims of mass incarceration, I’m not impressed.
We must care for the unborn–there is general agreement on that. But we must also care for the post-born, including the women who wrestle with painful implications of pregnancy. Sometimes there are no good answers or attractive options. The abortion debate will continue. But so long as the back-and-forth unfolds in the context of the American culture war, genuine moral argument will be rare and rhetorical grandstanding will be the norm.