The Failed Personhood Agenda: My Message to the Pro-Life Movement

As we enter a new year, I want to offer some thoughts on both recent events pertaining to the struggle to roll back abortion and the Culture of Death, as well as the historical significance of these ongoing efforts. In a sense, I will be delivering first the somewhat bad news, but then the encouragingly good news.

The disappointment lies in the political defeats of the 2010 election season, though to be quite honest, I and many others fully anticipated these defeats. In Nevada, Missouri, California, Florida and Montana, and there may be other instances I’m not aware of, propositions that would establish that life begins at conception (known as “personhood” or “human life” initiatives/amendments) failed to even appear on the ballot. Activists could not obtain the required number of signatures in these states.

The one personhood/human life amendment that did make it to the ballot, Colorado’s Proposition 62, was rejected by 70% of the voters in that state. One bright spot was to be found in Alaska, where a parental notification measure was passed with 55% of the vote. These defeats echo a similar wave of defeats suffered in 2008 across several states. Though this strategy has obviously failed, in almost every instance pro-life activists are preparing for another round of personhood propositions in 2012.

Please understand that I have nothing but admiration and respect for the pro-life activists who engage in these campaigns. They give up time and money to participate in the greatest moral cause of our generation, and for that alone they are to be commended.

But it is now time for the leaders and activists in the pro-life movement to reject the “personhood” ballot initiative movement.  These efforts have failed more than once, they have diverted scarce financial, political and human capital away from more realistic pursuits, and the continued defeats could easily lead to a chain-reaction of demoralization within and desertion from the pro-life ranks.

The pro-life movement is unique in all of politics in that it is one of the few movements I have ever come across in which disagreements do not lead to splits, rivalries, and bitter hatreds among the different groups participating in it. While human nature remains ever-flawed and tensions can and will arise in any movement, compared to what I have seen among socialists, libertarians, distributists and other ideological groupings, the pro-life movement has been able to maintain a much more coherent approach to politics and ideology.

This does not surprise me. For the pro-life movement is not divided between people who swear allegiance to one thinker, and others who worship another. There are few if any personality cults. This is because the pro-life ideology does not derive from any political or literary genius of the last 200 years. There are no Trotskys, Rands, or Chestertons that everyone’s thoughts need to be measured against to determine how ideologically pure or deviant they are. We are united on one simple principle: that human life, from conception to natural death, is sacred and endowed with inalienable rights, and therefore unborn human beings deserve the same basic protections under the law as born human beings. Whatever divisions over tactics and strategy do exist cannot detract from this basic principle in the way that divergent philosophical and personal views can cripple many other political movements.

But 40 years, while not particularly long in the big historical picture, can seem like 40 centuries when literally millions of lives are at stake and apparently little progress is made. Some of the same old tactical debates that have occupied other movements, such as the ones I mentioned above, do exist within the pro-life movement. The most frequently encountered is the old “incrementalism vs. insurrection” debate, for lack of a better term for the latter. Socialists would divide over the question: do we need a violent revolution, or should we try to influence policies over time? Revolution, or reform? Other ideological camps have similar disagreements.

In the pro-life movement, the prospect of violent revolution – no matter what Planned Parenthood hysterically puts out in its mass emails – has always been limited to a very small and mostly unheard from fringe. I shy away from declaring, as a good little boy in our modern society ought, that innocent human life is not worth using violence to defend. It is, and I won’t say otherwise. Certainly if liberty and taxes were worth it for the American founders, it isn’t crazy or deranged to say it would be in the case of innocent unborn children.

At the same time, the abortion situation is quite unique, and for many reasons I don’t think I need to spell out right here, I do not believe that a violent insurrection against the state is necessary, nor do I think it would result in anything good. So to be clear, I reject this strategy, and so does 99% of the pro-life movement. No need to report any of us to Big Sis Janet Napolitano, though anyone involved in the movement publicly is surely already on a list, given that the federal government views them as potential or already low-level terrorists.

So what could the great strategy debate possibly be about? To be honest, until this personhood agenda I didn’t think there was one. What alternative to “incrementalism” could there possibly be besides a revolution that no one wants? It appears that some folks think that they can do an end-run around Roe v. Wade with these personhood ballot measures, and not even a few years of overwhelming and repeated defeats will deter them. Though I don’t think they consciously see it this way, what many of these supporters want is a short-cut to the Culture of Life through the ballot box. It can’t happen that way, and it won’t happen that way.

It may be helpful, though, to distinguish between two kinds of “incrementalism.” The first kind is the kind that has frustrated the energetic and youthful pro-life base, those most likely to draft and support these personhood initiatives. It’s the old “continue to support the GOP with all your heart and soul” message. The rejoinder is that we’ve been waiting on the GOP to “do something” for 40 years and it hasn’t happened. Moreover a lot of GOP politicians talk the pro-life talk, but act very differently once they get elected or once the cameras are off, becoming indifferent or even stabbing the movement in the back.

Some of that is beginning to change, which is good news; the Tea Party sent a clear message about the pro-life values it expects GOP candidates who want its endorsement to hold. Some of the comments made by certain Tea Party leaders who claim to be pro-life have been perplexing and downright stupid in my opinion, but the grassroots appear to be solidly pro-life. This was inevitable, as I always knew, because it just isn’t possible to have a movement dedicated to something like fiscal responsibility (respectable but boring) remain energetic and relevant in any epoch.

The next kind of incrementalism is a much different kind, one that doesn’t depend upon politicians as much as it does the voters themselves. I am referring to a ballot measure approach – combined with the provenly effective approach of working to elect pro-life state legislators who can get things done – that aims at the weak points of the abortion industry instead of trying to win the grand prize with one easy vote on personhood (a topic I don’t think most voters really understand). There’s a reason why Alaska’s parental notification measure passed while every personhood initiative fails, and we have to understand a) what that reason is and b) why we shouldn’t pout because it doesn’t seem like enough.

The reason why it passed is the reason why similar measures pass or come close to passing in other states: it meets the skeptical, uninformed, and psychologically (as distinct from politically) conservative voting mass half-way. Radical changes frighten most people, and revolutions are not common, every-day occurrences. Even when they occur the majority is rarely with the revolutionaries, who rely on superior tactics and strategies to defeat larger, clumsier foes.

Roe was foisted upon the American public by an out-of-control judiciary based upon a dubious reading of the Constitution; no one voted on it, and no one but the radical feminists and communists wanted it (which is why they had to lie, cheat, and subvert in order to get it, all acceptable when done for the revolutionary cause). But it became the status quo and a significant, though I believe shrinking, segment of the electorate wishes to preserve it. Another significant segment sees it as something undesirable but nonetheless a “necessary evil”, or a “complex issue” that they can’t figure out because they don’t want to.

There are even plenty of self-identified pro-lifers, perhaps a majority, who don’t politically prioritize abortion, who believe that it is of somewhat lesser importance than the economy or national defense or some other issue. The percentage of the electorate that is not only pro-life, but considers abortion to be the most important issue of our time, is small. But that does not mean that it can have no influence over the political process, as it clearly does.

The ballot measure approach that focuses on things such as parental notification/consent, waiting periods, disclaimers, mandatory information, federal or state funding, and things of that nature is far more acceptable to most of these people for almost no other reason than that it is clearly understood and it is not radical.

And this brings me to the second point: these are not small victories. If a dozen of these types of amendments were to pass in an election year, the damage done to the abortion industry would be severe. It would cost it financially, but more important it would cost them in terms of reputation, influence and morale. The slightest move towards pro-life positions or policies by the public sends these butchers into a panic and a frenzy; the emails, blogs, editorials, all bemoan and bewail growing hostility to “choice.”

Anything that makes these people panic, which in turn makes them stupid and more prone to errors and blunders, is worth the effort. And you have the power to do it, my friends – is they, and not you, are who are showing signs of age and weariness, you and not they who are attracting more young people to their cause.

Combined with the ever-useful and necessary strategy of sidewalk counseling, public prayer, public protest, displays and events on campuses and at other venues, and so on, these ballot measures would keep the momentum flowing in the pro-life direction. And to be clear, it is going our way for the most part, if raw poll numbers and the influence of the Tea Party are considered. But this could end in short order if all we have to show for the bulk of our efforts are defeated initiatives. This sends the signal to everyone, from our dedicated enemies to our fair-weathered supporters, that we have lost the ability to make a difference and that our cause is becoming hopeless. On the other hand, every small victory indicates to the same people that we are capable of winning the long war of attrition and that it might even go more quickly if more people get off the fence and join the fight.

So as I hope my readers will see, this is not mere opportunism. Every victory counts because every victory will inspire and attract more people to the cause. That is the true victory, more so than what little may be done by a parental notification law. And every victory makes the enemy weaker, sloppier, and more desperate.

Perhaps one day we will be poised to strike with more far-reaching measures. For those who don’t like to hear “one day”, who want it now, I say to you that you cannot wish a Culture of Life into existence, you cannot legislate it into existence either. The people don’t sign your petitions or vote for your measures because they aren’t on your side. You’re at point Z, and they’re still at point A or B or M or Q. Now you can either give up on the people, in which case you’re pretty much out of options, or you can meet them where they are at with measures they can accept.

So to conclude: I agree with those who don’t want to wait for a GOP politician to fix this problem, who want to take the case directly to the voters. But I disagree with those who are pushing the human life amendments on tactical and strategic grounds, because they have so clearly and obviously failed for reasons that any student of the American political scene could have told them well in advance. It’s time to get smart and stay aggressive. There’s no reason we can’t be both.

Take comfort in this final thought: you, in the pro-life movement, are the most glaring and incomprehensible obstacle to the progressive agenda that the radical left has ever seen. They thought the sexual revolution, which celebrated divorce, fornication, homosexuality, and every other sexual sin, would sweep you into the ash heap of history. They thought that polite and now politically correct opinion would render you silent through shame and infest all of your children with their malicious doctrines – that at best you would be confined to old men and women nearing their final days and a few homeschooled rural fanatics. They thought that the youth of the future would unhesitatingly embrace and preserve with all of their might the gains of their glorious revolution against the family, Christianity, and “inconvenient” lives. That you’ve come this far has upset their paradigm, their implicit or explicit historical materialist (Marxist) view of history as steady “progression” towards their hedonistic and egalitarian utopia. Your existence frightens and confuses many of them. Your power is greater than you know. If you but wield it as rationally as you do aggressively, you will topple the entire structure.

17 Responses to The Failed Personhood Agenda: My Message to the Pro-Life Movement

  • The question is why a vote for “personhood” is rejected by so many who otherwise might be sympathetic. I have no insights there.

    One wonderful development, from talking to my children, is that due to technological advances (ultrasounds), there’s no debate anymore that “it” is a baby. When Roe passed in ’73, I was 9 years old. Even into my teens, while there was prayers against abortion, none of us could really comprehend the “baby” in the way these kids can today. They can see ultrasounds and see that “it” is absolutely a baby. We didn’t have that luxury.

    For me, I think the courts will have to answer a conflict – the country allows abortion, but in some places, a woman who does drugs can be prosecuted for harming her unborn child. And of course, in some cases, a person can be charged with double murder if he or she kills a pregnant woman. Those two situations seem to be in conflict. One the one hand, the country says “you can kill your baby”, and on the other hand, it says “we must protect that baby”.

    I agree with you – we must stay agressive. Time is on our side, I think.

  • Here is my column on this topic from earlier this year:

  • This was a great post, as usual. However, in your second-to-last paragraph, you reference a number of very good laws that protect unborn children (in certain situations, anyway). You are right to point out the inherent contradiction here: how some unborn children are protected, but those who are the victims of abortion are not. My only fear is that in focusing on this contradiction, the laws that protect some unborn children will be rewritten — as they have been in my state and in other places like CO. For example, in NH, if someone kills a pregnant woman, that person cannot be tried for two homicides. In CO, there was that recent incidence where a pregnant woman was hit by a drunk driver and lost her baby as a result. According to the laws in CO — laws that have been established to protect abortion “rights” — the family cannot prosecute the drunk driver for the death of their child.

    I’m not saying that we shouldn’t discuss the contradiction (as it certainly reminds people that in most cases, the baby in the womb is loved and wanted), I’m just saying that we should be cognizant of how such contradictions are being used by the pro-aborts to change existing legal language.

    In fact, I think that bringing up the facts of these changes — that is, how abortion is allowing lawmakers to strip parents of their legal right to protect their unborn children — would be a very effective addendum to such discussions.

  • I permit myself to point out that from our Catholic point of view, the great fault with abortion is that it is a sin. It puts the souls of the killers at risk. The children will be taken up by God. [Where do you think all those putti come from?].

    Consider the number of children – born or unborn – who die in natural catastrophes, the number who die from disease or starvation. They are also in the hundreds of thousands, annually. Does God create them only to die young? We none of us know.

    But we do the source of abortions – the women who become pregnant, and the aiders and abettors who “solve” the problem by dissolving the child. There is where the sin lies. The target of all the efforts should be the source of the sin – Satan.

  • The problem with incrementalism as I see it is the Supreme Court and its interpretation of the nation’s most powerful law.

    The Supreme Court has seen a right to abortion in the constitution. There is no more a right to abortion in the constitution than there are pink elephants in the constitution. However, if the Supreme Court says there are pink elephants in the constitution then we are all supposed to believe that they are there.

    The Supreme Court has seen a general, non-specific right to privacy in the constitution, which comes from “penumbras” formed by “emanations” from other rights. This ‘shadow puppet’ method of interpretation comes from Griswold v Connecticut, which is where the right to privacy comes from. It is this right to privacy that Roe v Wade rests upon.

    There is also the idea that the constitution is a ‘living tree’. What is a living tree and how is it legally interpreted and applied? In my view it is a deliberately vague term that is pulled out when the Supreme Court wants to run roughshod over the text of the constitution.

    Back to incrementalism: The problem is that any small incremental gains that are made via statute or regulation will be simply brushed aside when the composition of the court changes, due to vague interpretation rules. The battle will be never-ending. The plan for change must include establishing formal, objective methods for interpreting the constitution (possibly including a re-write of some sections of the constitution).

    P.S. Another area where the Supreme Court runs roughshod over the text of the constitution: The 10th amendment versus the interstate commerce clause. The 10th amendment has been pounded in to dust by the Court’s interpretation of the interstate commerce clause, allowing the federal government to expand in to a giant, bloated mass (and mess?). An interpretation that followed the text of the tenth amendment would go very far in terms of reducing the interference of the federal government in citizens’ lives.

  • If human life is defined to begin at conception (or fertilization), then what might that do to people’s access to hormonal and other methods of contraception that are thought to have post fertilization effects? I believe Planned Parenthood et al have used this line of reasoning to stir up trouble for the pro-life movement on this particular topic before.

    I believe it has been argued before the Supreme Court by the pro-abortion side that the Pill is infact an abortafacient.

    Then too, the country has quite a few frozen embryos and what to do with them?

  • Useful pro-life legislation:

    1. Allow the father of an aborted child to bring a wrongful death suit against the abortionist unless he received written notice at least 36 hours before the abortion.

    2. Mandate that abortions must be performed in clinics that also provide non-abortion medical services.

    3. Require abortionists to report each abortion to the state as to time, location, estimated age of the aborted child, age of the woman aborted, and the fee charged for the abortion.

    4. Mandate state health inspections of each facility that provides abortions every six months.

    5. Require that the remains of an aborted child must be disposed of in the same manner regarding the death of a born individual.

    6. Require at least six hours of instruction in fetal development in High School, including viewing a video of a sonogram.

    7. Mandate that facilities that perform abortions be required to obtain written parental consent before any abortion is performed on a minor.

    8. Mandate that facilities that perform abortions be required to obtain the name, address and telephone number of any adult accompanying a minor who is obtaining an abortion and to report this information to the local state’s attorney if the person is not a parent of the minor.

    9. Mandate that parents may sue for punitive damages if an abortionist, without the written consent of one of the parents, performs an abortion on a minor child of the parents.

    10. Mandate that facilities that perform abortions may be subject to a special zoning category which requires approval by a vote of the population of the municipality before the facility may be constructed or abortions may begin to be performed in a pre-existing facility.

    With pro-life forces controlling probably a majority of the state legislatures for the first time since Roe, this is the time for a massive push for legislation at the state level to begin to chip away at Roe. I think this strategy could prove enormously successful.

  • I am confused by 2 – do you mean that facilities that provide abortion services must also provide non-abortion medical services, or that clinics that provide non-abortion medical services must also provide abortions? I suspect you mean the former.

  • I suspect 2 should read

    Mandate that abortions may be performed only in clinics that also provide non-abortion medical services.

  • 3. Require abortionists to report each abortion to the state as to time, location, estimated age of the aborted child, age of the woman aborted, and the fee charged for the abortion.

    you mean “the woman upon whom the abortion is performed” – I don’t think the woman is usually aborted.

    I would also inlcude reason for abortion (whether medically indicated or optional) and race/ethnicity of patient and fetus. Although I suspect there would be a lot of fraud on both of those.

  • Better, and I think still doable under current law, would be that and to include that the location have full emergency medical and surgical facilities. That would pretty much restrict the procedure to hospitals. I would suspect many current abortionists would then be unable to ply their trade and many hospitals may balk at the idea of being an abortion mill.

  • Correct c matt that my proposal would be that abortions must be performed in clinics that also provide non-abortion services. A better proposal would be that they have to be performed in hospitals. Most hospitals wouldn’t want abortions to be performed on site due to the bad publicity and the fact that abortionists are often doctors with bad reputations for competency. Abortionists would shudder at the enhanced oversite from both the hospital administration and the enhanced state regulation, and the cut in their profit margin from being affilitated with a hospital.

  • “age of the woman aborted”

    No, I think “woman aborted” is acceptable usage to describe a woman who has had an abortion performed upon her. Certainly google indicates that the phrase “aborted woman” is quite common in reference to women who had had abortions.

  • “I would also inlcude reason for abortion (whether medically indicated or optional) and race/ethnicity of patient and fetus. Although I suspect there would be a lot of fraud on both of those.”

    Good idea. Also the sex of the fetus. I would be willing to wager that there would be a statistically signifant greater number of girls than boys being aborted due to sex selection abortions.

    That gives me another idea. Mandate that the abortionist must have the woman and the father, if possible, sign an affidavit under penalty of perjury that the abortion is not being sought for sex selection purposes, and make giving a sex selection abortion a felony with a prison sentence of 7-10 years. Make NOW and NARAL go to court to defend sex selection abortions.

  • You say that the Colorado personhood amendment was rejected by 70%.

    I turn it around. It was accepted by 30% of the people. In a liberal state. Where some pro-lifers campaigned AGAINST IT.


    The personhood movement is supposed to be a fringe movement.

    Some failures are not complete failures. This shows that the personhood movement has clout.

    Why can’t we have both strategies? Why can’t we do both incrementalism and push for personhood? Can’t we walk and chew gum at the same time?

    The truth is: a social movement has to do everything and try everything. That’s what actually works. There is no silver bullet. That’s why different strands of the pro-life movement must try different things and appeal to different people.

  • Another action: get your city or county council to pass resolutions recognizing by name the pro-life pregnancy centers and maternity homes for women in distress.

    This will be free publicity for these organizations and help them reach more clients.

    Such resolutions are also a just award for those who run the centers and homes.

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