The particulars of personhood

I kept meaning to read up on Mississippi's "personhood" initiative before voters voted on it. We'd had readers mention some problems with the coverage, namely that stories were burying the fact that pro-life groups were divided on whether to vote for it. Now, maybe you've followed the "personhood" debate. Maybe you haven't. But try to read this Associated Press story tabula rasa-style. Imagine you know nothing, or very little, about the debate and see what you can glean from this story. Here's just a sample, from the beginning of the story:

Abortion opponents say they're still pursuing life-at-fertilization ballot initiatives in six other states even though voters in the Bible Belt state of Mississippi rejected the conservative measure.

Abortion rights supporters praised the vote, saying the measure went too far because it would have made common forms of birth control illegal and would have forced women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term.

The White House called it a victory for women and families.

OK, there's the fact that this story's framing supports the complaints from readers that pro-life division over the ballot initiative was buried. But let's say you're simply wondering what the personhood initiative is. Does this lede in any way help you out? What the heck is a "life-at-fertilization" initiative?

You can read the rest of the story and get various spin from various groups about what the vote supposedly means. But for a simple story on the ballot initiative failing, it fails to explain what the ballot initiative really was.

Like, why was it called a "personhood" initiative? I suspect it's because it went further than declaring the scientific facts of human life beginning, as it does, when the sperm fertilizes the egg. I suspect that there's something key about "personhood" in this debate, but darned if I have any idea what it is from reading this story.

Over at the Weekly Standard blog, reporter John McCormack explains how the initiative that's been presented as a big failure of pro-life groups didn't get support from many big pro-life groups. He began by explaining the actual language of the initiative, which would amend the state constitution to hold "The term ‘person’ or ‘persons’ shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof." So there you go.

Back to the Associated Press story, it mostly goes back and forth between the initiative's supporters and pro-choice opponents. Which is fine. But since the failure of the initiative in a pro-life state hinged on pro-lifers voting against it, it would have been good to feature that angle a bit more prominently, instead of at the end where learn that some religious groups and various pro-life groups either opposed the initiative outright or took no position.

A much better approach was taken by Religion News Service on their day-after approach. Here's how the RNS piece begins:

The failure of the “personhood” initiative in Mississippi on Tuesday intensified what appears to be a growing divide in the anti-abortion movement.

Some backers of the initiative, which aimed to make abortion illegal by defining a fetus as a person from the moment of conception, are pointing fingers at major anti-abortion groups that stood on the sidelines during the Mississippi debate.

Well how about that? An actual advance of the political story that explains what the big deal is about the initiative. It's helpful and informative.

If you're looking for a hysterical piece that mocks the personhood initiative with palpable hatred, you should read what Time contributor Nina 'I would be happy to perform fellatio on Bill Clinton just to thank him for keeping abortion legal' Burleigh wrote. I'm going to go out on a limb here, though, and suggest that serious publications probably shouldn't publish pieces about complex topics by such partisans, though. It's the kind of piece written by someone who never got over referring to the lives terminated by abortion as a "clump of cells," and uses euphemisms to dehumanize the earliest stages of human life. It begins "Rebecca Kiessling embodies the right-wing female firebrand in all the clichéd ways. She has long, straight blonde hair, a law degree and bears a resemblance to Ann Coulter. She's married, a home-schooling mother of five and vehemently pro-life." Oh do tell us more, Burleigh. We're all ears for your presidential kneepad perspective.

Alicia Cohn, a political reporter here in DC, also filed a helpful piece for Christianity Today where she accurately noted that pro-life groups were very far from unified on the effort and also explained what the heck a personhood initiative is. All in the first three sentences! See, it can be done.

Image of pregnant woman and unborn child via Shutterstock.

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