“Personhood” and Angels Dancing On a Pin

To make a long story short, the effort to pass “Personhood” initiatives, constitutional amendments, and “symbolic” legislation began as an ultra anti-choice factional movement that rejected the mainstream Right-To-Life movement’s preoccupation (at least in public) with late-term abortions. Embracing “Personhood” was a way for pols to show their seriousness about fetal life, from the “moment of conception,” carrying the full panoply of constitutional protections.

In practice, though, the “Personhood” movement has become a political catastrophe, mostly because of its identification with beliefs about how to define “moment of conception” that defy medical and biological conventions and threaten to make standard contraception (or at least some forms of it) illegal. “Personhood” ballot initiatives in Colorado have gone down to massive defeat twice. Another lost decisively in Mississippi even though most of the state’s dominant GOP elected leadership backed it. Far and away the most effective argument against these initiatives has been the suspicion that they are intended not simply to ban early-term abortions, but to outlaw all methods of contraception that (according to the Catholic Church and many other antichoice authorities) operate after an ovum is fertilized, especially the IUD and “Plan B” pills (though some antichoicers instead standard estrogen pills are also “abortifacients”).

Now many Republican pols who have backed “Personhood” measures in the past are shucking and jiving about it. The classic response, offered by Colorado Senate candidate Cory Gardner and emulated by North Carolina’s Thom Tillis, is to offset the impression of opposing birth control by proposing to make standard oral contraceptives available without prescription. Iowa Senate candidate Joni Ernst has gone in a different direction, simply asserting that her support for a “personhood” constitutional amendment in Iowa was a “symbolic” gesture of religious belief, not a substantive proposal.

But most interesting is the very direct approach of Sen. Rand Paul, who simply refuses to acknowledge that there’s any conflict between “Personhood” and contraception. As Ryan Lizza explained earlier this week, his rationalization has roiled antichoice circles:

Paul is not a casual defender of personhood. In 2012, he held up a crucial flood-insurance bill in the Senate in order to try to force a vote on a personhood amendment. Aside from his filibuster against John O. Brennan’s nomination to be the director of the C.I.A., Paul’s effort to get attention for this amendment was one of the most dramatic moments of his Senate career.

So it was shocking, last week, when Paul was asked about Plan B during an event in South Carolina, and he nonchalantly declared that he had no problem with women using the so-called morning-after pill. “Plan B is taking two birth control pills in the morning and two in the evening, and I am not opposed to that,” he said.

Predictably, his answer caught the attention of pro-life activists. Just a few days before his stop in South Carolina, Paul had given a speech at the Value Voters Summit, an annual event for social conservatives co-sponsored by the Family Research Council. Paul said that America is in “a spiritual crisis” and promised that he “will continue to stand up in defense of life as long I’m privileged to be in office….”

Paul, having spent the last few years convincing pro-life activists that he firmly believes that the state should protect fertilized eggs the same way it protects all Americans, now simply shrugs at pro-life concerns over emergency contraception.

So he’s getting flak from people like Tony Perkins, but he can probably live with that. A slightly greater complication is the fact that treating various forms of contraceptives as “abortifacients” is not only theological dogma for conservative Catholics and many evangelicals, but is also at the heart of the “religious liberty” case for rejecting Obamacare’s contraception coverage mandate.

In any event, as Sarah Posner suggests at Religion Dispatches, Paul’s argument with other “personhood” advocates could produce “the most illuminating intra-pro-life dispute we’ve seen in some time.” But like the “personhood” movement itself, the brouhaha could also sound to those outside the antichoice camp like a bunch of extremists arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

And you know what? That’s sort of what it is. For prochoice folk, the key thing to warn against is any tendency to treat Paul as a “moderate” on reproductive issues because he’s not for banning Plan B. One of the main purposes of “personhood” initiatives is to rule out any exceptions to an abortion ban; once the fetus (or zygote) is endowed with “personhood” rights, its right to be carried to term is absolute with (perhaps) the life of the woman being the only limitation. Rand Paul’s position on abortion is identical to that of Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin. That he doesn’t also support a stealth attack on standard contraceptives does not change that fact.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.