Book review: "Personhood" by Daniel Becker

Book review: Personhood: A Pragmatic Guide to Prolife Victory in the 21st Century and the Return to First Principles in Politics by Daniel Becker

By Harlan Brown
July 25, 2011
Updated July 26, 2011, to fix a typo and a minor wording inconsistency

In this book review I use the term aborticide, which is not used in the book being reviewed and for which abortion is a commonly used euphemism. I prefer the former term because, as explained in Conception, abortion, aborticide, and the obfuscation of truth, abortion originally meant miscarriage and the cide on the end of aborticide emphasizes the fact that someone is being killed.

I enjoyed reading Personhood by Daniel Becker, and I felt it was well worth my time. It was the first book on personhood that I've read, and it is the only book I know of that advocates the personhood of the preborn as the focus of the prolife movement. I commend the author for the book's excellence.

However, I have one major disappointment with the book. The problem is not with Becker's attitude; his passion for the sanctity of human life comes through loud and clear not only in his words but also in the actions he has taken. The problem is not with his understanding of why personhood is important; he presents the case for personhood superbly. The problem is not his disagreement with the current opposition by the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) to personhood; he clearly refutes their position and shows why the prolife movement should persue personhood now. The problem is that some of the specifics of the strategy that Becker promotes are at odds with the principles that he enunciates.

Foundational principles

On Page 14 Becker clearly enunciates his understanding that spiritual warfare is underway and Christians are to be active participants:

The nature of our struggle is revealed by our Lord's proclamation in the original charter of the church (Matthew 16:18), His declaration that the church is an offensive force that no power—not even the gates of Hell—can stand against. Gates, as many have pointed out, are a defensive structure rather than a weapon of offense; as such they provide us with a strategy for exploiting our enemies' greatest strength. The gates of ignorance and deception are destroyed whenever we promote the Truth. In reality, it is God's people who are on the march, going forth to battle for the hearts, minds and souls of humankind. We advance the gospel into worldly strongholds.

Becker presents the case for taking a firm stand against exceptions for rape and incest. He cites what was accomplished when he ran for U.S. House of Representatives even though he was defeated. He adds this on Page 17:

Opponents to Personhood strategy say that this all or nothing approach is ill-advised. They love to point out that Losing is not costless. On the contrary, a loss is not detrimental if it inspires others to follow your lead, mobilizes the troops, engages public debate and lays the foundation for future political action. My loss laid the foundation for an unbroken string of victories and advances over the next decade, one such victory was my former campaign aide, Martin Scott, running successfully for the Georgia House and later introducing the nation's first Personhood amendment to a state legislature.

Becker presents a well-reasoned case for outlawing aborticide rather than regulating it, for standing firm and avoiding compromise. He discusses aborticide and the history of Christian opposition to it from the first century to present. He cites William Wilberforce's failed efforts to get rid of slavery by outlawing the slave trade and his success when he lobbied persistently for abolition.

As the Political Action Committee (PAC) Director for Georgia Right to Life (GRTL) before he became president of GRTL, Becker initiated the following changes:

  1. The PAC changed the basis for determining whether a politician or candidate was considered to be prolife. No longer would the PAC endorse those who supported exceptions for rape and incest.
  2. The PAC switched being a kingmaker to being a standard bearer. The PAC's sole responsibility became to uphold and enforce a consistent biblical standard that would protect all innocent human life.

Both changes drew fierce opposition, but Becker held his ground.

Solid foundation, faulty superstructure

Personhood, a 186-page book (including index), contains gems of wisdom and truth:

  • I firmly believe that the predominant prolife movement failed to achieve its desired legal, political, and cultural objectives when it abandoned Personhood as a strategy in the late 1970's.
  • Mother Theresa has stated that God has not called us to success but rather to faithfulness.
  • It is only as we repent of our dependence upon human wisdom and confess our need of God that we can expect Him to show Himself strong on our behalf—and that we will see prolife victory in the 21st century.
  • The modern prolife movement has rejected the foundational truth of Scripture and replaced it with a neo-pagan humanist approach that has proven inadequate to confront the devaluing of human life through its most common expression, modern child sacrifice.
  • As we have seen in our earlier discussion of Imago Dei, the Personhood of the preborn is a biblical concept originating with God. Personhood, therefore, must also be classified as an inalienable right conferred by God and not by government.
  • Personhood as a strategy transfers the focus from women's health and rights, transforming the argument into a human rights issue that transcends abortion and allows us to address the entire spectrum of sanctity-of-life issues, including cloning, IVF, euthanasia, and the newly emerging eugenics movement.
  • Infertility is not a justification for murder.
  • The prolife movement must mature beyond the singular goal of saving babies and engage our current culture of death with a return to the fundational premise that each and every innocent human being must be respected and protected—from its earliest biological beginning until its natural death. [I would change its to his or her to emphasize the personhood of the one beng protected.] Personhood is the means.
  • Our role in advocating Personhood is to facilitate, educate, and disseminate a biblical worldview within the Church, leading to a reponse within the larger grassroots prolife movement, one that will place our policy and strategy soundly on the biblical foundation of the whole range of issues embodied in the phrase sanctity of life, one that will stand the tests of time and fickle public opinion and defend human dignity beyond our present age.
  • The God-given response that should be evidenced by prolife leadership ... is to display a level of Christian faith and courage that is founded upon truth and pursued diligently and without compromise.
  • Government is defined biblically as being tasked with defending the innocent, the weak and the helpless against those stronger who seek to harm them.
  • Reject all legislation that says and then you can kill the baby or nothing in this bill shall be construed to challenge Roe. Don't feed the monster of legal positivism.

Becker lays a solid foundation that explains and defends human personhood. He presents sound reasons for taking what American Right to Life calls a Tier 1 (personhood now) prolife position. The conclusion is obvious: Abolish aborticide, don't regulate it, and don't have exceptions; treat the fetus as a person. Then he goes on to support legislation that treats the fetus as a nonperson, legislation that treats only some fetuses under the law's jurisdiction as persons. On Page 114 Becker says this:

The problem rests in the fact that we are so focused on abortion that we fail to see the larger picture. A ban on abortion that only saves children 20 weeks or older, saves 100% of that class of human life. A ban on abortion coinciding with a fetal heartbeat is better and saves more of a class of human life. A ban on abortion in cases of gender or racial discrimination save 100% of that class of human life. No where does the logic imply that then you can kill the other babies, the elderly, the infirm or children in a cryopreserved state.

The real problem rests in the fact that such legislation is inconsistent with the personhood principles that he so eloquently expounds. A ban on aborticide that saves only children 20 weeks or older treats the fetus as a nonperson. A ban on aborticide coinciding with a fetal heartbeat treats the fetus as a nonperson. A ban on aborticide in cases of gender or racial discrimination treats the fetus as a nonperson. Whether or not these laws explicitly grant permission to kill the persons not protected, the laws divide persons under the jurisdiction of the laws into two categories: the protected and the unprotected, thus providing unequal protection of the laws.

Laws do more than just protect the innocent and punish the guilty. They also educate the public regarding right and wrong. A law that prevents killing an unborn child only after 20 weeks gestation or after a heartbeat can be detected teaches that it is wrong to kill some unborn children but alright to kill others. It teaches the lie that the right to life depends on level of development. The truth is that it is morally and legally wrong for a state to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

For more information, see see the following articles:

Roe v. Wade

As Becker acknowledges, the issue of personhood played a crucial role in Roe v. Wade. The 14th Amendment says, ... nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. The crucial question was this: Is the fetus a person?

In the Roe case, the state of Texas argued that the fetus is a person. However, Sarah Weddington, the attorney representing Jane Roe, pointed out that under Texas law and under the laws of all 49 other states the fetus is not treated as a person. She won.

Delivering the opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Harry Blackmun wrote, If this suggestion of personhood is established, the appellant's case, of course, collapses, for the fetus' right to life would then be guaranteed specifically by the Amendment. No state's legal code treats preborn babies as persons. Hence personhood is the logical pressure point to protect innocent human lives.

Prolife principles vs. prolife politicians

And the flawed application of prolife principles leads to labeling politicians as personhood prolifers who are not. Protecting innocent human lives is not the primary focus of most politicians. Most are quite willing, whether intentionally or unintentionally, to pass laws that treat the preborn as property, not persons.

According to pages 19-20 of Personhood, a majority of Georgia's representatives in the U.S. House of Representatives hold a no exception position on the right-to-life issue. Yet eight of Georgia's 13 U.S. representatives (all Republicans) voted earlier this year for H.R.3, the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, an anti-personhood bill that makes exceptions. (Since the five Georgia representatives who voted against the bill are Democrats, I doubt that the exceptions led to their vote.) Despite its name the bill does not abolish taxpayer funding for aborticide; it limits it. Some tiny boys and girls are treated as persons; some are not. Section 309 permits funding for aborticide related to rape, incest, or preserving the life of the mother. The website that shows all congressional actions on the bill shows no amendments introduced to eliminate the exceptions.

Personhood presents arguments that support a Tier 1 prolife approach, a strategy that is Tier 2, and a favorable statement about certain politicians who vote Tier 3 (personhood later) or Tier 4 (personhood never).

Conclusion

In conclusion, Personhood presents a strong case for making personhood the focus of the prolife movement. I think it's worth reading for that information. However, when it comes to strategy the book falls short. Although Becker is way ahead of NRLC (a Tier 3 organization) in terms of personhood, I recommend American Life League, American Right to Life, Colorado Right to Life, Operation Save America, and Personhood USA (Tier 1 organizations) as better sources of prolife strategy.

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