Recently I read this article regarding a public sponsored initiative to change the State Constitution of Mississippi. If passed it would extend the category of person, as in full legal right-holding person, to embryos from conception. This continuation of the pro-choice/pro-life conflict in the United States hits upon a number of different areas.
Firstly, the Mississippi Supreme Court decision to allow a vote on the basis that pro-abortion “groups had not met the legal burden required to restrict the right of citizens to amend the state constitution” and that any challenge would have to occur after, and if, the measure is enacted. This coupled with the discussion of appeals up to the Federal Supreme Court, which is the aim of the anti-abortion lobby, demonstrates the all-or-nothing situation in the US. Without a consensus or even the process of legislative enactment it seems that there is no longer a view that the decision is about social cohesion or even compromise but of winning or losing a series of legal battles.
Secondly, it also raises the question of how democracy should operate. The idea of the public originating laws or constitutional amendments is admirable in theory but in practice how does this work within a pluralist society? In the case of Mississippi the constitution (link above) only requires 12% of the previous electorate to sponsor an initiative. This alone raises questions of how representative a system should be, but in the case of abortion additional problems are raised because of the assertion of rights to control and integrity of the body, and an individuals private life.
Perhaps there should be some limits to public initiatives when they affect personal rights (for an example see the constitution of Mississippi) but how do we decide when a right should be left untouched and on what basis to we then balance competing claims on the same issue? Do we allow whichever will give each citizen (or in the case of the UK each subject) the most options? Or do we rely on a public debate? How can we rely on one when so much can be distorted and twisted that the lies can become the truth? Is not the recent Alternative Vote referendum campaigning and the adverts suggesting that children and babies would die if people approved the AV system an example of the decline in real discursive debates?
Samuel Walker (PhD Student)