Who Gets to be a Person

I must confess to being almost militantly ambivalent about the matter of abortion as discussed in the United States. I cannot passionately take a side one way or another, being suspicious of both sides’ arguments. Pro-lifers strike me as all too invested in the kind of collective morality/sanctifcation that Jakob Kaplan described as being the essence of the confessional polity — the community that fails to see a distinction between church and state — that seeks to avoid God’s wrath on the community by punishing or forbidding sinfulness. (This, I believe, is the motive for most of the Protestant pro-life movement.) I also understand that, law or not, people have limited family size by killing or abandoning unborns and newborns (abandoned babies were one of the major sources of slaves in the Greco-Roman world). It is one of the horrible realities of human existence that will not change this side of Eden or the eschaton, no matter how much we want it to. God’s love is infinite. Human love is significantly more finite.

That said, the choice argument doesn’t work well for me either, since pro-abortion activists seem to want to make a sacrament out of the act, though I will almost always opt for for individual against the will/desire of the state or the society to make choices for the individual. I am not happy with this, and would rather the whole matter disappeared into the shadows where it belongs.
The always brilliant Will Grigg, however, puts an anti-abortion argument in a way that tends to work for me. I am no fan of eugenics or population control, seeing concerns about overpopulation as always the concerns of spoiled, wealthy white Americans/Europeans. Eugenics was just about everyone’s politics in the latter half of the 19th and first few decades of the 20th century — Planned Parenthood ought to simply come clean about involved Margaret Sanger was is making sure certain folks — poor brown ones and immigrants — didn’t have children. But progressive social reform politics were especially wrapped up in “improving humanity” by making sure the poor and other undesirables did not have children. (SOURCE: In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity by Daniel J. Kelves, University of California Press 1985; I own the book and have read it through twice.) Sanger was hardly alone.
At any rate, Grigg writes at length about population control efforts in the 1960s and early 1970s and the link to the Roe v. Wade decision. At least in Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s mind. He ends the piece by noting about Roe:

Every argument on behalf of state-imposed population control rejects the concept of individual self-ownership and assumes that human lives – individually and in the aggregate – are a resource to be managed by society’s supervisors on behalf of the “common good.” And, as Ruth Bader Ginsburg correctly intuited in 1973, the Roe vs. Wade decision was a triumph, albeit an incomplete one, for the cause of eugenicist population control.

Although it was swaddled in the language of individual empowerment, the Roe decision was a dramatic victory for collectivism: It enshrined, in what our rulers are pleased to call the “law,” the assumption that a human individual is a “person” only when that status is conferred by the government.

While Harry Blackmun’s opinion in Roe pointedly avoided the question of when “personhood” begins, it emphatically made it clear that, for purposes of “law,” that the term doesn’t apply to any human individual in his or her pre-natal stage of development. This, not the liberty to procure an abortion, is the real gravamen, or central legal finding, in the Roedecision: It put the government in charge of defining who is, and isn’t a person.

On some level, the state will always have the final word about who is a “person” and who isn’t. But Grigg’s point here really resonates with me.