The Personhood Initiative

Deal Hudson at Inside Catholic wrote recently about the divisions in the pro-life movement over the Personhood Initiative, a nation-wide effort to legally define “personhood” as beginning at the moment of conception. The testing ground for the initiative was Colorado, where the movement’s founder, an admirable 19 year-old by the name of Kristi Burton, hails from. The lowdown, according to Deal, is that,

Colorado voters turned down the amendment by a stunning 73 percent to 27 percent, in spite of support from Focus on the Family, American Life League, and legal advice from the Thomas More Law Center. But the effort had failed to gain the support of either National Right to Life (NRTL) or the Colorado Catholic Conference.

Whether or not that extra support would have resulted in a less unbalanced result, I cannot say. For those wondering why the Catholic Conference, and many American bishops are hesitant to embrace the PI, the concern was apparently that if it were taken to, and shot down by, the Supreme Court, it would have the effect of “actively reaffirm[ing] the mistaken jurisprudence of Roe.” According to Deal, however, some Catholic bishops are reconsidering their position on the PI.

Not long ago, in the context of the debate over the efforts of Bart Stupak and the pro-life Dems, I wrote about pro-life pragmatism. I argued that the much-derided “incrementalism” is actually the most viable way of winning the long-term war against the abortion industry in light of the facts about where the American electorate stands on abortion. With respect to the PI, and with all due respect to the founders and supporters of this movement, I must reaffirm that position.

That the first attempt of the PI was defeated by a 3/4 margin in what I will call a “purple” state is entirely unsurprising to me, as it ought to be to anyone who studies the trends in the American electorate with regards to abortion. I will recall the two most important facts I cited in my previous entry on this topic: 1) the majority of Americans favor greater restrictions on abortion, but not outright bans, which is what the passage of a PI would amount to, and 2) the majority of Americans, whether pro-life or pro-choice, do not place abortion near the top of their list of political priorities. Any political strategy or movement that fails to plan around these two facts is planning to fail.

One must understand, in the first place, that “incrementalism” is not something that is preferred because of any intrinsic value it may have over the alternative approaches – call those what you will. “Incrementalism” is nothing else but a description of the pace at which the attitudes and opinions of the electorate are subject to transformation, at least on this issue, during this historical epoch. As I have also argued in the past, I am surprised that the majority of Americans even favor greater restrictions on abortion – especially given that the 2008 elections saw parental notification propositions go down in flames in a couple of states, even as pro-marriage initiatives enjoyed success. Needless to say, if voters won’t even step up to the plate to enact parental notification laws, I don’t see them getting on board with a PI.

So I do not blame either NRTL, or the Catholic bishops, for hesitating to participate in or encourage this movement. A political movement, if it wishes to be successful, must prioritize its resources and allocate them to projects that are likely to have a significant impact. I have always been a supporter of the sort of work done by the Center for Bioethical Reform – of putting the ugly and bloody truth of abortion in people’s faces. This is an intrinsic good – the telling of the truth – in service of an intrinsic good – transforming views on abortion. I am also supportive of civil disobedience campaigns and whatever else it takes to make an impact on the public consciousness. And I think pro-life Democrats deserve a great deal more support, having proven their ability and willingness to hold the line on abortion (and I pray that they continue to do so, as Stupak has pledged).

But these personhood initiatives, while good in spirit, ask for too much, too soon (naturally depending upon the state – I am open to the suggestion that some states may indeed be ready, or close enough). By their very nature they presume that the electorate is in a moral place that they are really not in, and still relatively far from. A movement based on a false assumption is not one that I can support. The argument for personhood, at this stage, does not need to be tied to a political initiative.

For in most cases  – not all, but most – laws and the politicians who create and interpret them, are highly concentrated expressions of broader cultural and social trends. If it helps, one might think of the laws as a crop, and the culture or social situation as the ground; the ground must be broken and tilled before it can be planted, the weather must be favorable, the farmers must know what they are doing. One who tries to practice agriculture on any random patch of dirt without respect to these factors is more likely to fail, is perhaps even certain to fail. This we know not only from practical experience, but from Christ Himself through the parable of the sower – a truly timeless lesson for all sowers of all words.

Thus, instead of speaking of “incrementalism”, which might mean different things, and which might, in some cases, really be a sort of rationalization for complacency, we ought to perhaps speak of breaking or preparing the ground. This involves a no-holds-barred cultural offensive against the abortion industry, which as an institution is on the defensive. Easily-defeated PIs do nothing to undermine this powerful but blundering foe; on the other hand, there are several vulnerable points that can be struck. Exposing their inhuman, vile, international agenda is a start.

In any event, the pro-life movement needs genuine field marshals who are willing to use all of the weapons at their disposal while retaining a rational political strategy. The PI, as admirable as the intentions behind it may be – and I fully agree with their positions in principle – is, on the practical level, simply quixotic.

On a final note, I fully support the Manhattan Declaration and encourage co-bloggers and readers to sign, if they have not done so already.

27 Responses to The Personhood Initiative

  1. Steve says:

    I don’t recall Christ ever telling us to forsake the just on behalf of the pragmatic. We are called to be faithful, not successful.

    Does not DarwinCatholic’s MLK quote from yesterday hold as true in terms of abortion as it did with the civil rights movement?

    Those of us in the Personhood Movement are like the first troops storming the beaches. We’re going to get blown to bits, but we’re laying the groundwork for future generations.

  2. Joe Hargrave says:

    “I don’t recall Christ ever telling us to forsake the just on behalf of the pragmatic. We are called to be faithful, not successful.”

    No one is forsaking anyone, nor is anyone proposing success at the expense of faith. What I call for is a rational political strategy that accepts, and does not ignore, the facts.

    Do you have a question, perhaps, that I can answer for you?

    “Does not DarwinCatholic’s MLK quote from yesterday hold as true in terms of abortion as it did with the civil rights movement?”

    I don’t see the PIs as contributing to the pro-life movement in the same way that any of MLK’s activities contributed to the civil rights movement. The PIs are not going to culminate in a national abortion ban. That said, there are many other things that, in the same spirit as the civil rights movement, could be done today in the pro-life movement. This simply isn’t one of them.

    So, it is a false comparison. I don’t reject measures one might call “extreme” out of some over-socialized desire to preserve “order” – I reject measures that I believe simply do not and will not work.

  3. Steve says:

    Good and rational points. I concede my contentions.

    I guess I’d make a distinction–one I suspect you’d agree with–that the Personhood movement is essential in terms of the educational and awareness arenas, just not in the political realm.

  4. jonathanjones02 says:

    I argued that the much-derided “incrementalism” is actually the most viable way of winning the long-term war against the abortion industry in light of the facts about where the American electorate stands on abortion.

    So long as Roe is in place, “where the American electorate stands on abortion” is close to irrelevant because their voice is shut out of the electoral process. This judicial power grab is poison.

    Yet here we are, and this is the reason why the presidency matters so much to pro-lifers, much more than it otherwise would: until abortion is returned to the legislative process where it belongs, the politicization of the courts means that even a failed presidency such as W. Bush’s can be “successful.” That is not the way it should be.

    Douthat is right: for compromise, Roe must be overturned. Roe is an invitation to two forms of extremism on two very different sides of this most important of issues.

  5. Joe Hargrave says:

    “So long as Roe is in place, “where the American electorate stands on abortion” is close to irrelevant because their voice is shut out of the electoral process.”


    I respectfully disagree. It is, in the first place, relevant whenever someone wants to put something on the ballot. Now granted any measure that significantly challenges abortion “rights” will ultimately face the SC and Roe will likely be upheld – but I question how long it would be upheld if several major electoral victories were won successively.

    That said, I don’t see those victories coming today or tomorrow, at least not on personhood. On other issues, however, the ballot box is still relevant – parental notification, 24 hour waiting periods, restriction of public funds, etc. There are still weak points in the abortion industry that can be exploited in a number of ways. So, the position of the voters is relevant.

    At the end of the day, Douthat’s argument only confirms mine – the SC will have no motivation or impetus to overturn Roe until it is evident the people want it and will not take no for an answer. The people will signal this by continuing to vote for pro-life initiatives, one step at a time.

  6. Jay Anderson says:


    Right on. I wholeheartedly agree with you on the need, in general, for incremental steps in the abortion fight and, in particular, on the imprudence of the Personhood Initiative (although I also agree with Jonathan on the importance of the Supreme Court).

    I was once told by a blogger at Vox Nova that I was a “consequentialist” because I argued that a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade (the kind of challenge the Personhood Initiative would most surely pose) would set back the pro-life movement because it would certainly be overturned (given the Court’s current makeup) and such a reaffirmation of Roe would cement its stare decisis status; whereas incremental challenges to Roe would, in the long run, create a bunch of mini-precedents that would lead to Roe’s eventual repudiation as the Justices began to sense a shift in public opinion).

    Now, I can understand why someone might disagree with my prudential judgment in favor of an incremental approach, but to dismiss that approach as “consequentialist”? Really?

  7. Jay Anderson says:

    I was unclear in my language in my comment above.

    By “it would certainly be overturned”, I was not talking about Roe itself being overturned. What I meant was that the Supreme Court would surely strike down a direct challenge to Roe such as the Personhood Initiative, thus cementing Roe’s stare decisis status.

  8. Joe Hargrave says:


    I’m laughing because “consequentialist” is, like “American”, “Protestant”, “Calvinist”, or “Christo-fascist” one of the childish and idiotic stock phrases thrown around by that crowd to batter down arguments they have no legitimate response to.

    Consequentialism is a sin when one advocates committing evil acts in order to obtain a “greater good.” It is not evil to simply disagree with one course of action when other legitimate and arguably more viable means are available. It is a greater sin than so-called “consequentialism” in my view to deliberately abrogate reason in order to make a grandstand. To deliberately embark on a course of action that will result in failure when other means are available is nothing but an act of selfish pride.

    That said, I do NOT believe that is what MOST PI folks are doing – I think their sincerity is wonderful – but it is what I believe some of these people who bandy about the “consequentialist” charge are all about.

    This “consequentialist” position of yours, by the way, is taken by several bishops. I guess they don’t follow Vox Nova.

  9. John Henry says:

    Now, I can understand why someone might disagree with my prudential judgment in favor of an incremental approach, but to dismiss that approach as “consequentialist”? Really?

    Well, I’m not sure who you’re referring to specifically, but as a general matter my experience has been that the next steps in your interlocutor’s argument would be the following:

    1) We can’t take incremental steps (it’s consequentialist!);

    2) And there’s not broad enough support for sweeping change;

    3) Ergo we should focus our attention to other issues where we might have more impact.

    The problem, as you point out, is that incremental improvement is a perfectly legitimate approach to public policy. The fact that we actually can make constructive steps in a pro-life direction in health care legislation or in other areas means that it’s not acceptable to just toss up our hands and say “nothing can be done, let’s focus on my pet issues.”

    Thanks for bringing this topic up again Joe; it’s crucial that people in the pro-life movement trying to make changes via the political process have some appreciation for how that process works. Total victory is nearly always beyond our grasp (just ask the Democrats about health care), but incremental changes can add up over time.

  10. GodsGadfly says:

    A few points:
    1. The electorate stands where it does precisely *because* of incrementalism. When _Roe_ came out, the majority of Americans were against abortion. The NRLC said, “We have a 30 year strategy to overturn _Roe_.” They’ve had a 30 year strategy for 37 years. They wasted millions of dollars and over a decade of time on “partial birth abortion” which has amounted to absolutely nothing, and they still list partial birth abortion as one of their main causes.
    The incremental strategy has resulted in _Roe_ becoming settled precedent. _Carhart v. Gonzalez_ says that. It has resulted in Americans becoming comfortable with legalized abortion.
    2. Colorado is not the case to point to. Georgia is. Georgia tried it first, but the bishops of Georgia opposed it. The personhood amendment had a majority support in the Georgia legislature, and would have passed, but the Catholics in the legislature withdrew support because of the bishops.
    3. _Roe_ rests on the fact that the legal status of the unborn child is not settled. Indeed, one of the opinions says that the 14th Amendment does not apply to non-citizens, and an unborn child is, by definition, not a citizen (it takes for granted that the unborn child is a person). Ironically, _Roe_ could be used by anti-illegal immigrant types to justify oppression of illegal immigrants. However, there *was* a case in Texas where an illegal immigrant successfully argued that her unborn child was a potential citizen, so she should be allowed to stay. This case could have been taken by the pro-life movement to challenge _Roe_.
    4. Of course ,everyone focuses on _Roe_, but _Doe v. Bolton_ actually gave us abortion on demand. _Roe_ has numerous loopholes that were sealed in by _Doe_. The goal of the personhood movement is to take advantage of _Roe_’s loopholes: a reasonable Court could *not* overturn a personhood act by appeal to _Roe_. I’m not sure about _Doe_.

  11. Gabriel Austin says:

    What the Supreme Court will do about Roe is always a matter of speculation. That decision is so flawed that it would not be difficult to undo it. What it is running up against is the attitude of such as Justice Ginsburg who with her colleagues believed that Roe would solve the problem of unwanted minorities.

    The Personhood Initiative is best understood like the cannons that brought down the mediaeval castles. It was not the size of the cannons. It was the development of precision firing, much like a sledge hammer whose repeated hits at the same position crack the toughest cement.

    Let those who are against the Initiative explain their positions. As to the lament the impracticality of the petitions, I refer you to GKC’s constant battering of the “practical” position against “moral”. Consider slavery.

  12. c matt says:

    No 3 – really? One of theopinions says teh 14th does not apply to non-citizens? I haven’t read that particular opinion, but that judge must have been on crack, since the 14th makes the clear distinction between what applies to citizens and what parts apply to persons. Just a simple reading makes that clear (privileges and immunities apply to citizens, due process applies to all persons as does equal protection). Of course, the SCOTUS job is to make simple things overly complicated.

    I’ve heard one argument that person refers to “born person” because the 14th states “all persons born or naturalized in the US are citizens.”

    But this ignores the very structure of the sentence – does this mean that persons also only refers to naturalized persons, and therefore, until you are “naturalized” you are not a person under the US Con? That is simply silly. One neither needs to be born, nor naturalized, to be a person. As used in that phrase, born, like naturalized, refers to a condition necessary to attain citizneship, not personhood.

  13. c matt says:

    I still don’t understand this dichotomy between the incremental and the direct attack approach. I suppose there is a dilution of resources, etc., but I don’t see why one cannot push for both. In fact, taking a practical pointer from the opposing side, the more vehemently you push for complete reversal, the more likely you are to get the other side to accept incremental compromises.

  14. GodsGadfly says:

    c matt,
    Yep. It blew me away when I read _Roe_ in college, and I’ve never understood why no one talks about this. I forget which (in)justice it is, but the argument you’re talking about is probably derived from what he said:
    1. In his view, the 14th Amendment only applies to citizens.
    2. Therefore, the “right to life” is only constitutionally guaranteed for citizens.
    3. Since “birth” is a prerequisite for citizenship, then an unborn baby, regardless of personhood, cannot be a citizen.
    4. Therefore, personhood is irrelevant.

  15. GodsGadfly says:

    Also, while that *is* what _Roe_ says, it shows how ignorant the justicse are. I really need to look it up to be exact, but I pointed out in a research paper how the argument wasn’t even based upon the constitution. The justice who wrote that argument claimed the Constitution uses the word “citizen” far more than it uses the word “person,” yet the exact opposite is true.

  16. Joe Hargrave says:


    I won’t argue with the thesis that Christians might have done a great deal more in the immediate aftermath of Roe to get it overturned. Incrementalism in 1973 would not have been my choice either.

    But, as it is, we are now in quicksand. How does one escape from quicksand? A little bit at a time. We’re in a mess now that I don’t believe we can get out of by any other means.

  17. GodsGadfly says:

    The real issue is not “incrementalism” as such but how incrementalism is often achieved, by concession.
    Let’s put it this way. According to your argument:
    1) Some state passes a personhood amendment–which is really one of the only two possible ways to overturn _Roe_ (the other being Congress exercising its authority to reign in the Supreme Court)
    2) Eventually, the Supreme Court hears the case and, *possibly*, overturns it (though the whole wording of the Amendments is designed to specifically undermine _Roe_).
    3) So the result will be a net loss, as _Roe_ would be reaffirmed.

    However, that is the very argument against incrementalism: every decision related to abortion since _Planned Parenthood v. Casey_ has reconfirmed the status of _Roe_ as “settled law.” Each incremental measure, when fought, whether it succeeds or loses, serves as a further precedent reconfirming _Roe_.

  18. Joe Hargrave says:

    Well, Gadfly,

    It isn’t really ‘my argument’ that the result of a successful PI would reinforce Roe, though I do think it is possible.

    My argument is that no such initiative is going to be passed, because voters will reject it. If I thought it might pass in a certain state, I don’t think I would let the first argument about Roe deter me from supporting it.

    If the movement were able to conduct some proper polling and gauge the mood of the electorate and found it favorable, then I say go for the jugular. In CO, though, they walked into a disaster.

    The very phrase, though, “argument against incrementalism” sounds nonsensical and almost insane to me, since there is no alternative to it at the moment.

    If such an alternative were to present itself, I would be the first to look at it, and accept it if I thought it were viable.

  19. GodsGadfly

    I think it depends upon the kind of incrementalism involved. You are right in what has happened with the so-called “pro-life” incrementalism that we have seen in the US for the last couple decades. All that happens is it is incrementally accepting pro-choice arguments (hence, pro-life groups now support pro-choices for Congress?!!? What is that. I can understand private, prudential decisions, but right to life groups supporting someone who is pro-choice?! they have lost the message and prove themselves to being a Republican lobby, not a life lobby).

    I still think the greatest example of this is all the work against partial birth abortion. Yes, it is a great evil, and should not be done. Like all abortions. But the fact of the matter is that outlawing it has done two things: reinforced the notion that “birth” makes the child different, and stopped no abortions.

  20. Jay Anderson says:

    I have to laugh at how leftist Catholics rail againt the partial-birth abortion ban and say that its successful passage in upholding by the Supreme Court is meaningless. Unfortunately for them, the Bishops disagree. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops pushed for the ban, celebrated its passage, and celebrated again when the Supreme Court upheld the ban:

    The Bishops think the ban is important, and that’s what ought to matter to Catholics, not the opinions of those who have an axe to grind against the party that passed the ban.

    As an aside, it’s also interesting that all the screeching from the pro-abort pols (even from some of those pols who themselves voted for the ban) about how the Supreme Court’s decision in Gonzales v. Carhart threatens the very existence of abortion belies the claims of those on the left who want to pretend that the ban is meaningless. That’s because they know that there is now a Supreme Court precedent on the books upholding a ban on certain types of abortion. If Roe is ever going to be overturned, such precedents are an important toe-hold.

    The Bishops appear to grasp this. Those who pretend otherwise have some other agenda.

  21. Jay Anderson says:

    My first sentence above should say “its successful passage AND upholding by the Supreme Court”.

  22. Rick Lugari says:

    reinforced the notion that “birth” makes the child different

    I disagree with the premise that incremental minor victories are irrelevant. I also disagree with Henry’s assessment of the PBA ban. Part of the problem with the abortion debate is the fact that the unborn child is concealed in the womb – it makes it easy for some people to avoid confronting the real nature of what is taking place. By shining the light on that point in time where the baby is half in and half out force a confrontation with reality. The only possible effect in my mind is that people who were comfortable with abortion in general but found the idea of PBA unacceptable are now challenged to consider abortion as a whole in a different light.

  23. GodsGadfly says:

    Jay Anderson, since when are Judie Brown, Alan Keyes, Dr. Charles Rice, and Fr. Tom Euteneuer “leftist Catholics”?

    The issue with the PBA ban is not just the distinction that birth makes it OK. _Roe_ permits abortion to be outlawed in the third trimester; _Doe_ says you can’t outlaw abortion if the mother’s health is at stake. Legally, that has devolved into, “The patient was depressed”–the #1 life saving reason cited by Tiller.

    The problem is that the ban on “partial birth abortion” only specifically outlaws 1 specific kind of late term abortion. _Gonzalez v. Carhart_ says it is OK to outlaw this *one* particular kind of late term abortion because there are other methods of late-term abortion out there. If the bill outlawed *all* late term abortion, then Kennedy (who wrote the decision) would have voted to overturn the law, because there was no exception for the life or health of the mother.

    Plus, the decision reaffirmed _Roe_ as the law of the land. Can you imagine if, 40 years ago, the US bishops had said it was a “victory” to have a Supreme Court decision that said that OK’d legalized abortion?

    Joe, you’re right about Colorado, and perhaps your thesis would be better stated as an explanation for Chaput’s opposition.

    But in South Dakota and Georgia, the laws did not fail from popular opposition. The bills failed in both cases because the USCCB and the NRLC actively campaigned *against* the personhood initiatives. Something is seriously wrong when the USCCB and NRLC are campaigning *with* Planned Parenthood.

  24. Joe Hargrave says:

    “But in South Dakota and Georgia, the laws did not fail from popular opposition. The bills failed in both cases because the USCCB and the NRLC actively campaigned *against* the personhood initiatives.”

    Interesting. I’ll look into it some more.

  25. cminor says:

    Well, he’s right about Georgia. AS I recall, the bishops at the time objected to the initiative because they felt the wording might lead to more problems than it solved. A statement was published in the Diocese of Savannah’s paper, The Southern Cross, at the time; unfortunately their archives are not set up in such a way that you can find anything without lots of wasted time and lost temper.

  26. Jay Anderson says:


    My comment about “leftist Catholics” wasn’t referring to those people (and I think you know that). Unlike the people to whom I was referring, I believe the people you mentioned have principled opposition to all “half measures” and don’t hold those views based on political opportunism. Still, while I respect their opinions regarding incremental measures, I profoundly disagree with them.

    Again, I’ll stand with the Bishops on the partial-birth abortion ban. It was NOT meaningless. It was an important step.

  27. GodsGadfly says:


    It’s also important to note that in Georgia you’re dealing with Wilton Gregory (who basically turned the Archdiocesan newspaper into a campaign ad for Obama) and J. Kevin Boland (who, back in 2004, before Archbishop Donoghue retired, refused to participate with all the other bishops of the Metropolitan See of Atlanta when they issued a statement refusing communion to pro-abortion politicians).

    Thanks for the clarification. These days, it’s hard to tell.
    In what way was it a “step”? 10+ years of congressional debates, Clintonian vetos, state battle, and two Supreme Court cases, just to make *one* specific procedure illegal and confirm _Roe_? And, last I checked, NRLC still had it as their top agenda. If the NRLC’s “30 year master plan” is so great, why haven’t we moved on? What’s the next step?

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