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Dimensions of Personhood: Reflections on Penn State and Mississippi

Last week, pundits and prognosticators were puzzled when Mississippi voters decisively rejected an amendment to the state’s constitution that would have made fertilized eggs persons, presumably entitled to all the rights that human beings enjoy. The measure, which almost surely would have been declared unconstitutional by the courts (I doubt the Supreme Court even would have bothered to weigh in), ended up being too much even for voters in one of the reddest of red states. But let’s not forget that more than four in ten voters said “yes” to the measure.

More than anything else, a “yes” vote required turning a blind eye to the complexities of life. Not only would the measure have outlawed certain forms of contraception (bringing us back to an earlier time when the state’s heavy hand tried to control reproductive decisions), and raise problems for in vitro fertilization (by effectively limiting many women to a single embryo), it would also have denied reality by fully equating even the earliest embryos to the women carrying them. In theory, this would have stopped even abortions needed to save women’s lives — by what logic, other than a utilitarian calculus that seems ruled out by the logic of this measure, could the embryo’s life be affirmatively ended in order to save the mother’s?

Such certainty in the face of such complexity is easy, and cost-free, when you’re pulling a level at the ballot box. But I wonder how those same people would have reacted had they come upon the horrific scene that confronted Mike McQueary that day in the shower at the Penn State athletic facility. Or if they had been told what happened, as was Joe Paterno. How sure are they that they’d have done the right thing? I’d like to think I’d have known exactly what to do, but you never know unless you’re in that moment. It’s humbling to think about, and the reason we need clear and unambiguous rules in place to deal with such cases. Even then, we won’t always get it right.

Perhaps thinking through some of the “what ifs” would have resulted in a different vote on personhood — so easy to state, so hard to define, and so likely to cause terrible difficulties.

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