Life Begins At Conception? Faith Leaders Debate

Nov 3, 2011
Originally published on November 3, 2011 11:05 am
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MICHEL MARTIN, host: But first, we want to talk about a ballot initiative in Mississippi that has gotten national attention, and before we begin, this is probably a good place to let you know that this conversation involves a sensitive subject matter that may not be appropriate for all listeners.

On Tuesday, Mississippians will vote on Initiative 26, which is known as the Personhood Amendment. It would change Mississippi's state constitution to define a person as, quote, "every human being, from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof," unquote.

Supporters argue it is necessary to eliminate abortion once and for all and to save the lives of the unborn. Opponents say the initiative is so vaguely worded that it has the potential to ban certain forms of contraception and possibly methods to assist reproduction. They also say it will jeopardize women's rights and possibly their lives by interfering in difficult medical decisions.

Now, when voters are asked to consider a weighty moral issue such as this, some turn to their faith for answers, so in a minute we've decided to turn to two religious leaders who are on opposite sides of this question.

But first, we're going to hear from NPR's Kathy Lohr. She recently returned from Mississippi, where she's been reporting on this issue. She joins us now from NPR's Atlanta bureau. Welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

KATHY LOHR: Glad to be here.

MARTIN: So Kathy, did I capture the wording right? Is there more to it? Is it exactly as I said?

LOHR: You know, it's very short. It's exactly as you have depicted it, which is defining a person as a human being from the moment of fertilization.

MARTIN: And is there any question that the intention is to eliminate abortion in the state, period?

LOHR: I don't think there's any question. There is no exception for rape or incest, so it would definitely outlaw abortion.

MARTIN: Now, you were in Mississippi reporting on how this is all playing out, and just briefly - and I know this is a complex story, but can you just briefly tell us - how is the support and opposition shaping up?

LOHR: It's an interesting situation because most politicians have come out in favor of this amendment, Amendment 26, including both Republicans and Democrats, both candidates for governor, the attorney general, Jim Hood, who is a Democrat. He says he'll enforce it if it passes. So few politicians have actually come out against it in such a conservative state. It's pretty clear that people believe they would lose votes.

Also, groups traditionally opposed to abortion are pushing this, of course, including the American Family Association. On the other side, there's a group of doctors that have come out against it, a group of nurses. The Mississippi State Medical Association didn't come out against it, but said it couldn't support the measure, so again, there's the tricky wording.

And then this week Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, who is a prominent southern Republican, says he was undecided because he said the measure was so ambiguous that the language really concerned him and very much it concerned people who are opposed to abortion.

MARTIN: This is, I think, a good place to turn to our faith leaders. We've been talking about Mississippi's Initiative 26, which would define human life as beginning at conception. NPR's Kathy Lohr has been explaining it to us. Kathy, I'm going to ask you to stay on the line in case we have further, you know, factual questions.

But now I'd like to welcome our two faith leaders into the conversation. They've been discussing Initiative 26 with people in Mississippi and in the rest of the country. Pastor Jason Dillon(ph) is an associate pastor at Parkway Pentecostal Church in Madison, Mississippi. He's a member of the Yes on 26 Advisory Board.

Also with us is Reverend Timothy McDonald, III. He's opposed to Initiative 26. He is senior pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, but he's been traveling to Mississippi to attend faith-based forums. He is a member of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

Thank you both so much for joining us.

JASON DILLON: Glad to be here.

TIMOTHY MCDONALD, III: Likewise.

MARTIN: Paston Dillan, I'm going to start with you because you are a member of this Yes on 26 Advisory Board. How has your faith informed your position on this question?

DILLON: Growing up in the South in a conservative family and atmosphere, it just never was a question that life was precious and that it was sacred, so whenever I formed a friendship and was brought onboard to the advisory board of Yes on 26, it was not a question that I wanted to be a part of that because I truly believe, amidst all of the uproar, that abortion is not right. And my faith has supported that because when I read scriptures, from those scriptures I see God literally screaming, if I can say it that way, this is not right, I don't want you to kill or to commit murder because I am a God of life; I produce it, I form it and I want it to be sustained.

MARTIN: Reverend McDonald, the same question to you. How does your faith inform your understanding of this question?

III: My faith is very important in understanding this issue and I think it is very clear that you can be pro-life and still against Initiative 26 simply because it is so vague and so far-reaching and so complicated. It goes beyond the issue of just preserving life.

What about the mother's life? What about the person who's perhaps been raped or the young person who perhaps has been a victim of incest? They too have rights. It's not the first time that people of faith have disagreed about interpreting the scripture and it won't be the last time.

But I see the hand of God moving in a very different way. This initiative would do far more harm than I think good-intentioned people realize it could do. It could jeopardize the health of a mother, even to the point - if the mother has found out that she has cancer and a fertilized egg that may be three weeks old or four weeks old has the same rights as that mother, she cannot be given chemotherapy, which means that she could die.

And so this far-reaching arm of the government - I mean we're fighting to get government out of our lives, why would we vote to have government to come more into our personal lives and into our families and into our faith even? These matters should be left to people of faith, to be left to parents or the women and men who are specifically, directly involved in it, and not up to government.

MARTIN: Pastor Dillon, let me ask you about one question that Reverend McDonald raised, which is this question of the circumstance in which the mother's life might be in danger. How do you ethically balance the question of saving the mother's life versus saving the life of the fetus that she's carrying? Specifically the example of a chemotherapy case, for example, and there have been others too. How do you ethically balance that, given your faith principles?

DILLON: Well, one of the main things that I would love for people to understand is that Yes on 26 is a 72-word amendment that literally does not violate the doctor's Hippocratic oath that whenever a woman comes into the hospital, his job is to make sure that he takes care of both persons, the woman and the child. So at that point - sure, there is some vagueness in the fact that, you know, at the point that the baby is not viable or at the point that the mother cannot sustain that life and her own, I could see where there would be exception.

But the fact is this amendment is not dealing with inside the doctor's room where the doctor has the sole responsibility of taking care of those two people. This amendment is going to target specifically the place where intentional manipulation of removing the child from the womb is happening on a daily basis. There's only one abortion clinic left in Mississippi and we are desperately trying to get that shut down because most of the times, people - and when you give them the choice, if they're not armed with scriptures and, you know, as our dear pastor friend said, pastors need to be preaching that abortion is not the only option, but adoption is the option in the case of rape or incest.

And hopefully we would sustain or support a culture of life that we could encourage these people who, sure, have the freedom of choice, would not choose to judge the innocent by killing the innocent, but rather they would allow the innocent to live and pray that the current judicial system would judge the person that did that to them by violating them in a rape or an incest situation.

MARTIN: Reverend McDonald, what about Pastor Dillon's point that if - and maybe I'll just rephrase it this way. When someone desires a child, he or she sees that child as a child from the moment of conception. People say to theirselves - they said, I'm pregnant. They don't say, I'm kind of pregnant or, I'm waiting to see if I'm pregnant. They say that they're pregnant. So why then would that standard be any different if the child is not wanted?

III: Well, look, even biblically, let's understand that miscarriages occur and we can say, yes, you know, God allows that. That could be any time in the first trimester. It could be two months, three months, but God allows - I mean miscarriages. There's stillbirths. So I think we're trying to give government power that not even, in my opinion, a privilege that God has ordained, because even if it's a person at two weeks and then it miscarriages at six weeks, then that's of God, if it's defined as a person, because the real issue here is about personhood and the rights of a person, and that goes way back in the Constitution when even slaves were defined as three-fifths of a man, so as not to be defined as a person to have rights.

This whole issue of personhood and rights is a longstanding debate and this particular initiative will be going against the Constitution of the United States and probably it's going to be ruled unconstitutional in the long run as well. At least I heard that from a lawyer the other day.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, I'm just going to say that, because we're not going to - I am certainly not equipped to resolve these constitutional questions here today and I do understand that that is relevant. But to that end, Pastor Dillon, what about Reverend McDonald's point, the Constitution does enshrine religious freedom, you know, as a core value in the United States. And there are those who do not share your specific faith perspective. And as Reverend McDonald pointed out, that people have disagreeing about what scripture demands since, you know, the beginning. Right?

So given that, why do you feel it's appropriate for those who do not share your specific faith perspective to abide by your specific interpretation?

DILLON: Well, because in the long run, and you can speak, you know, about economics and things of that nature, and I did hear a precious black minister the other day at a press conference. And he spoke that - he said we are absolutely decimating the black population in Mississippi and in America because the majority - obviously, you know, white people have their problems, but the majority of those - borrowing from his words - that visit the abortion clinic are the black population. I would love to see that stopped completely, whether someone agrees with my faith perspective or not. And the only viable way that we have to do this is via this amendment.

MARTIN: Now, I understand that, Pastor Dillon, but what I'm asking you is those who don't share your faith perspective - why do you feel that it is - what's the word I'm searching for? Your right to - can I use the word impose it upon them, if they don't happen to share your interpretation of faith in this particular way?

DILLON: Sure. You know...

MARTIN: Is that acceptable to ask it that way?

DILLON: Absolutely. The government imposes upon us every day and I heard our pastor friend say that this is using the government to impose this upon people. I would love to evade taxes, if possible, but there's two things that are certain and that's death and taxes. So all of us are going to be susceptible to something imposed by the government.

But if we could see the word of God and somehow convince America that the word of God benefits people when they obey it, then they would understand. This is something that is not imposed per se. This is something that is a benefit to my life because I'm sustaining life and I'm not just seeking to get rid of the responsibility of a child if it's conceived in a immoral manner or some type of way. And then, even if a person is raped or incest happens, there's a law or there is an option that says, hey, there are people lined up by the scores that would love to take care of your child because they can have no child of their own.

MARTIN: Reverend McDonald, a final thought from you. Again, how would you answer that from a faith perspective? If someone were to say to you that their understanding of the scripture is very clear and it is infallible and therefore not to be questioned, what is your answer to that?

III: We always get in trouble, and history has showed us, when we try to legislate morality or to legislate faith. No one has the right to impose their faith belief upon anyone else and that's one of the main reasons I'm opposed to Initiative 26. It will be the imposition upon those who may not share.

I am, you know, and many African-Americans are certainly, you know, pro-life, but that does not mean they have to support Initiative 26 because they want to reduce it to the issue of abortion. It is much broader than the issue of abortion and pro-life. And I want the listeners to understand, you can be pro-life and still vote against Initiative 26, and I think we'd be very consistent with biblical principles and biblical ideas, because this is government trying to legislate morality, trying to do something that not even God - and I said, as a theologian who allows miscarriages in three months, who allows stillbirth - not even God is doing what they are trying to get the citizens to do.

And the repercussions that are going to come if this initiative passes, I think, is going to be far-reaching, and then they say, well, we'll come back later and tweak it. I'm not going to trust politicians to tweak my faith or to tweak my religion or to tweak my beliefs.

I think it is important that people of faith understand the full implications, get all of (unintelligible) this is not just an abortion issue - and vote no on Initiative 26. It is not in the best interests of people of faith.

MARTIN: All right. We need to leave it there for now. Kathy, I'm going to give you the final word. If I may, I want to bring NPR's Kathy Lohr back into the conversation. Mississippi voters will decide on Initiative 26 on Tuesday. Is there a sense that that will be the final word or do you think that there will be additional steps after that from what your reporting tells you?

LOHR: Not at all. There are so many questions here, Michel. First of all, if it does pass, there is a 30 day waiting period, but then there are questions about whether the initiative would effect immediately or whether there would have to be enabling legislation, which they were talking about. The legislature might have to come in and figure out all these - there are 9,000 references in the Mississippi constitution - more than 9,000 to the word person. So what does that mean? Every time it says person, what does that mean as far as the census? What does that mean as far as fertility treatments? There are so many things that would have to be decided.

And then, also, there is a court challenge that sort of - in the Supreme Court that never was decided as to whether the proponents could even amend the Bill of Rights through this initiative process, and that was never really resolved. The amendment went on the ballot without that being resolved.

So this is going to be in the legislature and in court or both.

MARTIN: Kathy Lohr is a correspondent for NPR based in Atlanta. She's been covering the debate in Mississippi surrounding Initiative 26. Reverend Timothy McDonald, III is the senior pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. He is a member of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and he was kind enough to join us from member station WCLK in Atlanta. Pastor Jason Dillon is an associate pastor at Parkway Pentecostal Church in Madison, Mississippi. He is a member of the Yes on 26 Advisory Board and he was kind enough to join us from Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson.

I thank you all so much for speaking with us and I thank you for a civil and illuminating conversation. Thank you all so much.

III: Thank you so much.

DILLON: You're welcome.

LOHR: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.