Politics & Policy

The Pro-Life Defeat That Wasn’t

Conceiving cultural reconstruction.

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.

What is most interesting about the hyperbolic celebration that followed the defeat — most publicly from the National Organization for Women and other presumptuously named groups of fellow-travelers — is much of its deceitful rhetoric. While trying not to let my own ideological desires color my interpretation too much, I find it hard not to notice a little bit of desperation in the champagne-bubbled overreaction. 

While supporters of the initiative were accused, yet again, of waging a war on contraception, it could be argued that those actually intent on being the controlling authority in such matters are the liberal sisterhood with megaphones. (And, currently, the White House.) And, wielding under-the-radar regulatory directives, they can be quite productive — leading, for instance, to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty’s lawsuit on behalf of Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina. As a Becket press release explains, new Department of Health and Human Services regulations under President Obama’s Affordable Care Act would force the college, run by Catholic monks, to cover, in its health-care plan for employees and students, all FDA-approved contraceptives, including Plan B and Ella, which are considered abortifacients by the Catholic Church. 

The monks’ concern goes beyond simple conscience rights; it doesn’t have to do with “turning back the clock,” and isn’t limited to theology. Around this time last year, none other than the glossy New York magazine featured a cover story suggesting that the contraceptive pill might not be the panacea for women it has been hailed as for all these decades now. The story didn’t constitute a well-placed public-relations boon for an incognito Vatican, but a little honest reporting. Some do consider the Pill freedom in your Gucci purse. But others wonder.

Beyond political and legal strategy, Christopher Tollefsen, co-author of Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, observes that the personhood amendment “was about whether every human being, including the youngest, deserved full moral and legal protection, a condition that could be called ‘personhood.’ If it moves debate in that direction, I think it was valuable.” 

What exactly is a person, anyway? Whether we always acknowledge it or not, we know the answer. Scientifically. Biologically. Emotionally. A tarp that had been covering an infamously unconstructive debate was lifted when sonograms became commonplace in the lives of pregnant women. That is why activists work to help crisis-pregnancy centers raise money for more such windows onto the womb. And that is why conversations about whom and what we value must be had out in the open, with a little less demonization. As well as debates about related choices we make, from the most intimate to the financial and, yes, political.

There are those who consider that women won a victory on Election Day. I agree. Somewhere, beyond misleading victory gongs, there’s a little more honesty about humans and human rights. A little victory in defeat, perhaps.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is the editor-at-large of National Review OnlineThis column is available exclusively through United Media.