Recently the people of Mississippi voted not to amend their state constitution to declare that human life begins at conception. Nevertheless the scientific fact remains: Human life begins at conception.
Unless I am mistaken, the Mississippi constitution is silent on the law of gravity. Perhaps at some future date the state will schedule a referendum on another proposed amendment, enabling the voters to declare themselves for or against gravity. The results, however, will be moot. No matter how the votes are cast, the law of gravity will remain in effect.
In his wonderful work A Man for All Seasons, Robert Bolt puts a powerful rhetorical question in the mouth of St. Thomas More:
Some men think the Earth is round, others think it flat; it is a matter capable of question. But, if it is flat, will the King’s command make it round? And, if it is round, will the King’s command flatten it?
No, neither king nor parliament can flatten a round earth. Nor can the voters of Mississippi delay the development of the human being whose life—unquestionably, by any plausible scientific standard—begins at the moment of conception.
A popular vote is a wonderful way to settle questions about public preferences. But not all questions can be settled in the same way. As Pope Benedict recently reminded the Bundestag, basic human rights cannot be subject to the passing whims of popularly, and thus “it is evident that for the fundamental issues of law, in which the dignity of man and of humanity is at stake, the majority principle is not enough.” The Pope went on to explain that the most essential human rights are innate: permanently encoded in human nature. These rights are expressed in the natural law, whose authority is both prior and superior to any man-made law.
The laws of science, too, were set in place before any government claimed the power to legislate. We can rail against the unfair effects of gravity. We can denounce the third law of thermodynamics. We can argue (as Einstein argued) that the rules of quantum mechanics seem absurd. Living in a free country, we can express our views on all these questions without restraint. But our opinions don’t matter. Scientific laws apply with equal force, whether we like them or not.
So tiny human beings will continue to develop in their mothers’ wombs in Mississippi, despite the silence of the state constitution on their legal status. In that sense nothing has changed—because nothing could change—as a result of yesterday’s vote. But in the political world something did change, because the people of Mississippi came face-to-face with a fundamental scientific reality and refused to affirm it.
The Personhood Initiative has its critics, who argued that the attempt to amend the Mississippi constitution was imprudent. The referendum might fail, they warned, and its failure would be a setback for the pro-life movement. (Of course their opposition helped to produce that very result.) If it passed it would be challenged in court, they worried, and the Supreme Court would probably find the amendment unconstitutional. These were not unreasonable arguments, but they were timid arguments. They were the arguments of people who fear they have something to lose. As the laws stand today, unborn children have no legal protection whatsoever. For the unborn children of Mississippi—and indeed for the pro-life movement in general—there is nothing to lose. The Personhood Initiative may face long odds, but even a slim chance is better than no chance at all.
Now, having failed to sway the voters in conservative Mississippi, the Personhood Initiative will face an even tougher uphill struggle in other states. Maybe pro-life campaigners will decide that their energies should be directed elsewhere. But before slamming the door on an ambitious legal initiative, let’s pause for a moment and consider what might have ensued if the vote in Mississippi had swung the other way.
First, note that the Personhood Initiative did not ask the people to settle a scientific dispute. This was not the equivalent of asking the king to flatten a round earth. The scientific question is settled; the facts are beyond dispute. The referendum asked Mississippi voters to acknowledge a scientific reality and its necessary consequences. Abortion advocates threw all of their considerable resources into a campaign to persuade people that they should not examine the evidence, because the evidence damns their argument. The most unsettling thing about this vote is the realization that a majority of voters were swayed by that crude propaganda campaign.
Yet if the voters had confirmed that life begins at conception, there might have been a revolutionary change in the public debate about abortion. Since every human being has rights—a truth that Americans hold as “self-evident”—the advocates of abortion would be forced to explain why the rights of the fetus should be curtailed. For the first time in nearly 40 years, the focus of debate would be on the rights of the unborn child.