Personhood Activists Regroup as “Next Civil Rights Movement”

Personhood USA is out with a new video defining its movement as the “new civil rights movement of the 21st century.”

Drawing on the same imagery used by promoters of “black genocide” conspiracy theories, the video suggests that Martin Luther King, Jr. would have approved.

Michael Brendan Dougherty thinks that pro-lifers are breathing a sigh of relief over the defeat of Mississippi’s ballot measure to define fertilized eggs as “persons.” He describes the relieved as the “incrementalists,” whose goals of gradually restricting access to abortion could be undermined should a “personhood” amendment become law and be challenged in court.

Yet as the new Personhood USA video shows, its rhetoric, if not its tactics, undergird the current anti-choice zeitgeist. Indeed, Lila Rose, the guerrilla “investigator” whose deceptive undercover videos fueled the current Republican assault on Planned Parenthood, has been moving toward a civil rights agenda. At the Values Voters Summit in 2009, Rose suggested that abortions be performed in the public square. A few months later, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Rose upped the ante by arguing that if people could view abortions as she suggested, it would instigate a civil rights movement for fetuses. Her twisted analogy: Emmitt Till’s mother’s decision to show photos of her son’s battered body to the world ignited the actual civil rights movement.

Last year, House Republican crusader Chris Smith suggested creating a new protected class entitled to equal protection of the law: immaturity. And at a presidential candidate forum in South Carolina a few months ago, Manhattan Declaration author Robert George stunned even the GOP hopefuls with his question about whether, as president, they would “propose to Congress appropriate legislation pursuant to the 14th Amendment to protect human life in all stages and conditions.” That is, George was proposing not a human life amendment to the Constitution—something the right has long discussed but never accomplished—but rather a law guaranteeing fetuses civil rights. It would be constitutional, he asserted, “given the clear mandate of the 14th Amendment, empowering Congress to enforce the guarantee of equal protection.”

The incrementalists may still prevail on tactics; that is, with allies in established anti-choice groups and the Catholic bishops, they may indeed persuade activists and voters of the legal and strategic pitfalls of “personhood” laws. But there is no doubt that the imagery and rhetoric of a “new civil rights movement” will continue to fuel efforts to shrink access to legal abortion to zero. In other words, the incrementalists might be winning their strategic internal war, but the “personhood” diehards are shaping the way a new generation conceptualizes a fertilized egg.

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