Life at Fertilization in Mississippi?

Mississippi votes today on an inititiative that would recognize life "at the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the equivalent thereof." The sweeping measure seems to pass Catholic muster, since it would ban abortion in cases of rape, incest, or to protect the health of the mother. "Collateral damage" of the measure would include banning certain types of birth control, (notably the pill and the IUD,) stem cell research, IVF, and emergency birth control for rape victims (and others.) ABC's report is here. (A confusing point for me--the report says that Mitt Romney supports a Constitutional amendment defining personhood at conception, not fertilization, so is different from this bill. Really? Or is there some confusion here between conception, fertilization and implantation? Romney seems--it's unclear to me--to oppose creating embryos for research, but has supported the use of "excess" embryos for that purpose.)The initiative is polling at basically a dead heat, 44%-45%. Both parties' gubernatorial candidates have endorsed the measure. The measure is extreme enough that Bishop Joseph Latino of Jackson has written a letter taking no position for or against it, voicing concerns about "unintended consequences." The initiative, if it passes, seems unlikely to pass judicial review.Among the issues here is the distinction between the "let's reduce the incidence of abortion , since it's unlikely we'll get it re-criminalized in the US" folks (and their potential for common cause with the "safe, legal and rare" crowd) and the "we must strive for absolute legal prohibition" people. Many staunch pro-lifers, (including Bp. Latino,) imply that the latter approach is harmful to the cause of eliminating abortion. James Bopp, Jr., general counsel for National Right to Life, told the New York TImes:

From the standpoint of protecting unborn lives its utterly futile, and it has the grave risk that if it did get to the Supreme Court, the court would write an even more extreme abortion policy.

But isn't this law exactly what would be meant by respecting the embryo "as a person" from conception, as magisterial teaching on abortion states? Or is this a situation in which the magisterium might argue against laws like this on grounds of toleration, a stance in which one allows an evil to continue because effectively barring it would cause greater harm to the common good? Classically, Augustine argued for toleration of prostitution in his port city of Hippo because he feared for the safety of other women at the hands of randy sailors if prostitution were banned. Aquinas concurred, citing Augustine in his argument in favor of tolerating religious rites of non-believers. But...Catholic teaching on matters of public policy is that civil law is always to be framed in light of the common good. So if not legislating Catholic teaching on abortion is better for the common good than legislating it would be...or is this simply a matter of political prudence?

Lisa Fullam is professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. She is the author of The Virtue of Humility: A Thomistic Apologetic (Edwin Mellen Press).

Also by this author
A Heartening Corrective

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Religion
Culture
Culture
Books
Books
Collections
Collections