Reacting to this has been on my to-do list for about a week now. I thought I’d just comment on it during Saturday’s Non-Prophets, but it got canceled, so I guess I’m blogging it instead.
Personhood amendments are constitutional amendments that declare that human life begins at conception, no matter what the circumstances. This human life — no matter what stage of development, including a zygote — has constitutional rights. Terminating the development of a fertilized human egg is akin to murder under personhood amendments. Generally, under personhood amendments, the circumstances of the pregnant women are irrelevant because the fertilized egg has a constitutional right to life.
In an effort to promote its cause, Personhood Mississippi has started a “Conceived in Rape” tour featuring Rebecca Kiessling, who says she was conceived by rape and was slated for abortion. Kiessling states on her website,
Have you ever considered how really insulting it is to say to someone, “I think your mother should have been able to abort you.”? It’s like saying, “If I had my way, you’d be dead right now.” And that is the reality with which I live every time someone says they are pro-choice or pro-life “except in cases of rape” because I absolutely would have been aborted if it had been legal in Michigan when I was an unborn child, and I can tell you that it hurts. But I know that most people don’t put a face to this issue — for them abortion is just a concept — with a quick cliche, they sweep it under the rug and forget about it. I do hope that, as a child conceived in rape, I can help to put a face, a voice, and a story to this issue.
In reply, some have said to me, “So does that mean you’re pro-rape?” Though ludicrous, I’ll address it because I understand that they aren’t thinking things through. There is a huge moral difference because I did exist, and my life would have been ended because I would have been killed by a brutal abortion. You can only be killed and your life can only be devalued once you exist. Being thankful that my life was protected in no way makes me pro-rape.
The thing is, calling the question “ludicrous” doesn’t actually put it outside the realm of discussion, it’s just an attempt to poison the well.
Trying to make the fetus legally a person is a tactic they’re using in order to do an end-run around the fact that most people don’t think it is one in reality. Yes, they want to convince everyone that a fetus is equivalent to a person with constitutional rights, but appealing to the fact that it is would be begging the question.
A few months ago I wrote some hypothetical questions about what constitutes “potential life.” These were some thought experiments of mine which revolve a time traveler preventing a person’s birth, asking basically: In which of these cases has the time traveler committed murder? Are you murdering someone by preventing their parents from having sex? Are you murdering potential siblings by allowing a person to be born, knowing that if he hadn’t been then his parents would otherwise have had other, different kids?
Naturally, some people dismissed the post as pointless because “time travel isn’t real.” Well, sure. But neither is the imaginary alternate universe that Rebecca Kiesling proposes, in which Rebecca Kiesling was never born. In this universe right here, circumstances have caused Rebecca Kiesling to be alive today, and no amount of hypothetically retroactive changing of the rules can alter her existence unless time travel becomes a reality. So if we’re refusing to accept alternate universe scenarios, we can’t reasonably discuss whether Rebecca “shouldn’t have been born”; we can only discuss whether we should force mothers now to bear a rapist’s baby that isn’t a person yet.
The way that Rebecca has framed the issue is, of course, emotionally manipulative. On purpose. She says that she hears people saying “If I had my way, you’d be dead right now.” Sounds pretty rude, doesn’t it? But let’s just push back the question to the circumstances that caused her birth in the first place. I wish her mother hadn’t been raped, because I’m against rape. It is no less valid to frame that opinion as “If I had my way, you would never have existed.”
Putting side effects in personal terms can easily be used to make the audience feel like the person is a real jerk, when in both cases their primary concern is a goal of preventing undesirable suffering. Being anti-rape, it’s “I sure wish somebody would have stopped that guy from forcing your mom to have sex with him.” Being pro-choice, it’s “Since your mom was unfortunately raped, I hope that she retains the option to spare herself the emotional trauma of having to bear a rapist’s baby.”
Whether those two desires are actually different from each other completely revolves on the not settled philosophical matter of whether a blastocyst with no brain function or nervous system is distinct in any important way from a sperm and an egg that never combined in the first place. And that’s a matter worth arguing about, but it shouldn’t be “settled” by the minority ramming their religiously-motivated answer through as law.