By Simon Brown
“Personhood” bills are like a game of Whac-A-Mole: every time you smack one down, another pops up somewhere else.
A bill that would have codified that life begins at the moment of conception and a fertilized egg has full legal rights as a person failed in Virginia last month, and a similar ballot initiative failed in Mississippi in November.
Now, the same type of bill is being considered in both Oklahoma, where the measure has already passed the State Senate, and Arizona.
Fortunately, for all the personhood bills that come up, there seems to be no shortage of critics. In Oklahoma, the Rev. Bruce Prescott, a former Americans United board member who serves as executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists, said the bill violates freedom of conscience.
According to the Associated Baptist Press, he asserted that the government should not interfere with “the right of fully conscious and sentient persons to make vital decisions -- life and death decisions -- regarding their own life and their own health under the liberty of a conscience formed by their own religious beliefs and convictions.”
Prescott added that the measure also takes sides in a theological dispute.
“There is wide disagreement among Christians (even within the Roman Church) over the timing for when a fetus has developed sufficiently to begin actualizing its potential for personhood,” Prescott said. “Among most Protestants, these matters are perceived to be too personal and too sensitive to be predetermined by either ecclesiastical or government decree.
“Wise and prudent decisions on these matters,” he said, “can only be made under private consultation with licensed physicians, with the counsel of family members, and under the spiritual guidance of the family’s own ministers and clergy persons.”
In Arizona, Anne Mardick, president of the Greater Phoenix Area Chapter of Americans United, submitted testimony critical of a “personhood” bill (SB 1494) in the legislature there.
“This legislation would violate the clauses of the federal and state constitutions that prohibit the establishment of religion,” she advised the Senate Public Safety and Human Services Committee. “It endorses religion by enshrining a particular religious doctrine of when life begins into law. Theological teachings cannot be the basis of legislation without running afoul of the state and federal constitutions.”
Mardick and Prescott are exactly right, and personhood bills would lead to a slew of problems if any state is ever foolish enough to pass one. Such laws would be unconstitutional and a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade, which means there is a high likelihood that litigation would follow.
These types of bills often have unintended consequences as well. In Mississippi, for example, the personhood amendment would have banned abortion in virtually all cases (including rape and incest), as well as making many forms of contraception illegal. The language of the amendment was so broad, it could have allowed for criminal investigations of women who miscarry.
It’s safe to say that personhood bills will continue to pop up, and when they do Americans United and our allies will be there with a mallet – ready to swat at these wacky proposals.