The Legal, Ethical, and Tactical Challenges of North Dakota’s Personhood Amendment

Tightrope_walking balance balancingLast week North Dakota became the first state in the Union to pass a personhood ammendment that covers humans in their embryonic stages of development. Read it  here at HuffPo. For all the work involved in getting to this day, the easy part is over, and the real fight lies ahead.

The lesislation, SCR4009, states:

“The inalienable right to life of every human being at any stage of development must be recognized and protected.”

While this amendment is beautiful in its absolutist elegance, it presents the Pro-life Movement with a constellation of challenges in selling this proposed amendment to the North Dakota voters who must now vote to ratify it. That won’t be an easy sell when the voters move past the noble principle and consider the specific applications in the lives and reproductive health of North Dakota’s women.

The first objection that will need to be overcome is what is to be done in the case of ectopic pregnancy, which occurs at a rate of 19.7 per 1,000 in North America. This is no small question, as even pro-lifers are split on the approach to this potentially fatal condition. All would agree that it is out of tyhe question to sit back and let nature take its course. Read here for a good article about ectopic pregnancy.

While many case spontaneously resolve, with the embryo being resorbed by the mother’s body, many do not. In the case of tubal pregnancies there are two basic approaches, only one of which is morally acceptable to Catholics. The first, and morally unacceptable method, is to treat the mother with drugs such as methotrexate, which target the baby for death. Proponents of this method prefer it, as it preserves the Fallopian tube for future pregnancy.

The direct targeting of the baby is morally unacceptable to Roman Catholics, leaving salpingotomy (removing the tube with the baby inside), as the only morally acceptable solution. This approach satisfies the moral principle of Double-Effect, which according to the David Solomon article just linked states:

four conditions [need to] be met if the action in question is to be morally permissible: first, that the action contemplated be in itself either morally good or morally indifferent; second, that the bad result not be directly intended; third, that the good result not be a direct causal result of the bad result; and fourth, that the good result be “proportionate to” the bad result.

A question that arises is whether Catholic pro-lifers are willing to endorse methotrexate over salpingotomy in the case of ectopic pregnancy. If not, count on the other side arguing that we are trying to force our morality on the public through this amendment. When asked, how will we respond?

Will fidelity to our moral compass fracture the absolutist tone of the amendment’s language? If so, what other concessions will be sought and made? How rapidly will personhood be eviscerated?

These questions require answers now, today, as North Dakota voters are forming their impressions as we speak.

More potential objections and exceptions in Part II.

Dr. Gerard Nadal is Science and Health Education Policy Advisor for the Bioethics Defense Fund. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology with a minor in Philosophy from Saint John's University, New York City. After his post-baccalaureate sciences at Columbia University, New York City,  Dr. Nadal returned to Saint John's University where he received his Master of Science in Cellular and Molecular Biology, Master of Philosophy in Biology, and Ph.D. in Molecular Microbiology. Also a member of University Faculty For Life and the Catholic Writers Guild, Dr. Nadal is a columnist for Headline BistroDr. Nadal also serves on several advisory boards, including the Coalition on Abortion/Breast Cancer, Good Counsel Homes, and the Children First Foundation. A Fourth Degree Knight of Columbus and unapologetic Roman Catholic loyal to the Magisterium, Dr. Nadal and his wife home school their three children. He blogs at Coming Home.