The morning after this month’s relatively quiet Election Day, I read story after story about a major pro-life defeat. “Mississippi Wins for Women!” The Daily Beast exclaimed. “Birth Control Remains Legal: Mississippi Voters Reject Draconian ‘Personhood’ Initiative,” declared the National Organization for Women. “Our victory in Mississippi has already sent a strong message to extremists who will stop at nothing to outlaw abortion. If we stand together, we can stop the escalating assault on reproductive rights,” the American Civil Liberties Union proclaimed.
Mississippi’s personhood initiative, which sought to amend the Magnolia State’s constitution to define “person” to “include every human being from the moment of fertilization,” had lost at the ballot box. But if this was a pro-choice victory, it was a pyrrhic one. Pro-life voters played an integral role — in a pro-life state, no less — in the defeat of the amendment. Moreover, this was a defeat actually welcomed by many reliable pro-life activists around the country, concerned, among other things, that it would invite the Supreme Court to double down on Roe v. Wade, almost 40 years after the landmark decision that invented a right to privacy and codified a cultural revolution.
It is clear that the personhood campaign was no unanimous pro-life strategy. But the framing of it by the pro-choice camp certainly was unanimous.
Leonard J. Nelson III, a law professor and author of Diagnosis Critical: The Urgent Threats Confronting Catholic Health Care, explains that the personhood amendment “was promoted by Southern Baptists and other Evangelicals. But the Catholic bishop in Jackson refused to back it. The Methodist bishops in Mississippi also came out against it. James Bopp at National Right to Life said it was a bad idea and could endanger serious attempts to overturn Roe. Many conservative Protestants are opposed to abortion but favor contraception, and this measure could be interpreted as banning some forms of contraception. Also many conservative Protestants favor in vitro fertilization, and it could be construed as affecting that. It was an oversimplified and sweeping approach to an issue that is more complicated than that for many pro-life voters.” Even pro-life Republican ex-governor Haley Barbour questioned it.
In other words, it was a great deal more complicated than the black-and-white “Pro-choice wins, and pro-life loses!” It wouldn’t even be incorrect to call the initiative’s defeat a pro-life victory. But that would not do full justice to the issue. Our political culture is such that deep discussions don’t always happen, and sometimes aren’t even welcomed by groups that are quite comfortable with keeping a light from shining on the human experience in all its stages and complications. If we were willing to have those discussions, we might realize that we have a lot more in common than the labels “pro-life” and “pro-choice” suggest, and that there is a lot of middle ground to work on, to save lives and make living them seem a lot more rewarding than it might otherwise look.