Personhood: Dead or Burgeoning?

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Jan. 18 2012 7:58 PM

Personhood: Dead or Burgeoning?

GREENVILLE, S.C. -- I arrived late to the PersonhoodUSA forum, held in a Hilton right off the highway into town. It didn't surprise me that there was no parking. It surprised me a little that dozens of cars were decked out in Ron Paul signs, including this one:

photo (5)

Inside, I picked up some of the key literature...

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... and headed to a seat to absorb the wisdom of Rick Perry. He got a sort of faux pas question, asking if he'd side with Personhood USA in a lawsuit brought by Planned Parenthood in Texas. "Well, I hope to be somewhere else." But would he support Personhood nationwide? "Going into a state, using the bully pulpit, I absolutely would support that," he said. "You know my history, and you know my historical positions on the sonogram bill, on Planned Parenthood funding. I'd have no problem with this."

It would be left to other candidates to get granular about personhood in America. Perry riffed, using Moses as the kind of unique person who might be aborted "if they were born today."

"Think about 35,000 children aborted every day in China!" he said. "That nation is destined for the ash heap of history... unless they change their ways."

Gingrich was more comfortable; moderators tweaked the questions to focus a bit more on science. When does life begin? "We are fully human upon conception, because all of the genetic patterns are committed at that moment." Anyway, the movement was winning. "We're right at the edge of a huge counter-attack. Planned Parenthood has gone from a good thing that no one wanted to talk about to an institution of huge controversy."

But back to the science. Look at the cover of Wired magazine: "They're dealing with, and they're speaking of, transhumanism and human genetic engineering."

"This issue is central to the next 40 years," said Gingrich. "Somewhere on this planet there will be a dictatorship that uses science in ways that are hugely grotesque." What happens when a genetically modified human registers for the Olympics? "This might be the best time since leaving the Garden of Eden when we have to come back and define what it is to be human." Gingrich closed with a perfect story, one that started "at a brunch in Buckhead" where a woman came up to him and said there was no difference, vis a vis the rights of the individual woman, between a malignant tumor and a baby.

"It's not a malignant tumor," said Santorum. "It's a baby."

The mystery pro-choicer had been served; the Personhood-ers jumped to their feet. Santorum had to follow this, and the science was largely replaced by movement talk. "Someone who was convicted of rape could not be executed, because it would be cruel and unusual punishment," said Santorum. "A baby [sired by the rapist] COULD be executed. That's a society with morals that are upside down."

Ron Paul, the poor guy, could only appear via a video feed from Washington; he'd come back to cast a (functionally meaningless) vote against the debt limit hike. I was primed for boos, but the packed room did well for him, and the questions weren't too tricky. Life began, said Paul, "at the time of conception, when the egg and the sperm came together." Change morals, not laws. "It wasn't working in the 60s, then the law was changed, and the loss of morality gave us Roe v Wade."

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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