Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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There Are Persons, and Then There are Persons
Mississippi consistently ranks near the “top” among states with the highest poverty rates in the nation with about one in five persons living below the official poverty line. That’s not an award you’d want to win, so most rational people would assume that Mississippi politics would focus on how best to reduce the poverty level for its citizens, making the state a more attractive, healthy, and just place to live. Sadly, it seems, rationale people are not running the show either in Mississippi or in Washington where reaffirming “In God We Trust” as the national motto and voting on an amendment that would define personhood as beginning at the moment of conception garner far more political energy than actually solving the problems of real persons.
The so-called “personhood amendment” is the darling of the radical religious right and its anti-choice campaign, so far right that even the staunchly pro-life United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is not supporting it. On the eve of the vote polls have the pro and anti forces running neck and neck, but the fact that such an amendment is even on the ballot, let alone dominating an election cycle that includes a governor’s race, is remarkable. Have we all simply gone mad?
Defining personhood as beginning at conception is a clean, neat way of banning abortion. No more ambiguity on this vexing moral question. Of course the amendment, in addition to launching a new front in the assault on women’s rights, brings with it some awkward collateral damage. The amendment would effectively ban the use of the IUD, a long used and popular form of contraception. Could women using the IUD be charged with a crime, even murder? Richard Land, a prominent spokesperson of the Southern Baptism Convention, acknowledges that this would have to be determined eventually, but suggests that charges of involuntary manslaughter or negligent homicide might do for the doctor involved. Then there’s the matter of a woman with a dangerous ectopic pregnancy. Should the woman be allowed to die? Again, Land generously offers a moral out. “Certainly if we’re for life we are going to be for reserving the mother’s life. In an ectopic pregnancy the baby is going to die. The only question is if he’ll take the mother’s life too. Of course we’re not pacifists. We believe it is OK to take life to defend life.” Funny how black and white turns very gray when convenient. What about the issue of conception following rape or incest. Again, issues to be sorted out after the vote.
Now, did I mention that ONE IN FIVE PERSONS IN MISSISSIPPI currently lives below the poverty line? Persons however defined. And poor. Since unplanned and unwanted pregnancies tend to be more prevalent in the poorest populations, passing this amendment will likely add a lot more fetuses – persons – to the growing ranks of the poor. Mississippi may well secure its place as the birthplace not only of a landmark state constitutional amendment in the culture wars over abortion, it may solidify its place as a leader in poverty rates as well.
It’s not clear which way this vote will go. What is clear is that for a lot of us defining personhood seems to be far more important than doing the hard work of actually caring for persons, that it’s easier to love a fetal person in principle than a poor person struggling to house, feed and educate the little persons in her family. Land uses an interesting hermeneutical device in defending his support for the personhood amendment. Referring to Psalm 51.5 – “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me” – Land asserts, “David says at the moment of his conception he had a sin nature. Only a human being can have a sin nature. You’ve got to have a soul and a spirit to have a sin nature.” Assuming for a moment that David actually wrote this Psalm and that he was anticipating by about three millennia modern biological science, it still seems a thin reed on which to build a foundation for moral thought and sound or just governmental policy. Poverty, on the other hand, is addressed far more frequently in the Bible in passages that require far less interpretive creativity. But of course, we’re dealing now with actual persons who are poor, not fetal persons in principle. Sometimes it’s embarrassing to be a Christian given the company we have to keep.
This week we’re one year away from the next presidential election. It is sobering to ponder what’s in store for us over the coming months and whether there’s any chance that poor persons, rather than just fetal persons in principle, will dominate the national debates. The political and cultural climate right now is not encouraging. Mississippi may well be a harbinger of what’s to come. I suppose we should be glad that a state that once denied personhood to its enslaved population now seems poised to extend personhood. But the cynic in me is not all that impressed. Is this what democracy was to be all about? I guess so. And yes, “may God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.” Or something.
John H. Thomas