Thursday, October 30, 2008

Colorado Initiative 48

Voters in Colorado next week will be voting on Initiative 48, which defines a person as beginning at the moment of conception.

I think this is terrific to get this on the ballot. Not because of the merits of the question, but because I think that this question is precisely the elephant in the room in the abortion debate (see my previous commentary on this issue). The abortion debate will continue to consist of people talking past each other so long as either side refuses to recognize that this very question is the core of the debate: nobody advocates murder or infanticide, not even the most ardent pro-choice advocate. The pro-choice argument boils down to an argument about triage (in the case of the life of the mother/incest/rape), or a personal choice unencumbered by "murder" issues precisely because the fetus is, in the mind of a pro-choice advocate, not yet a person.

So this initiative finally puts the key issue front and center. We define a moment of personhood, and from that all else will follow.

Now, of course, I think this is a case of "be careful what you ask for, you just might get it." If one defines a person - with all of the legal implications that entails - as beginning at the moment of conception, then I think there will be a raft of unintended consequences. Of course, the abortion question does indeed get somewhat settled (to the degree that it follows from the definition, even if many people do not believe it to be a wise decision), which I presume is the motivation for Initiative 48. But conferring upon a fertilized egg all of the rights of a person also necessarily means that the embryo must be protected: miscarriages, some forms of birth control, in-vitro fertilization, etc. could all very likely generate criminal scenarios where none exists today (and for which there is no controversy today).

For these reasons (and those of my earlier post), I do not believe that this is a good amendment. The definition of when personhood begins is essentially arbitrary. Frankly, I'd ask why conception as the point is a matter of religious faith for so many people when I'm not aware that any holy text address this point specifically.

Personally, I think that it's a "person" from a moral point of view sometime in the middle of the gestation (and that's about as specific as I know how to be), and from a legal point of view at birth. But I cannot defend that opinion as "fact"; it's essentially a judgment call, and a matter of consensus.

At least this ballot measure will decide what that consensus is - or what it is not.

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