There is an inherent contradiction when it comes to how the government determines the personhood of an individual. On the one hand, a government must have a defined measure that explains who is protected by their laws. Who gets to vote? Who gets to go to school? Who gets to work? And this does not only apply to citizens of the country.
For instance, even if someone is in the country illegally, it is still against federal law to harm that person. Individuals have certain human rights, which are different from rights afforded to citizens. On the other hand, we have seen terrible historical examples of instances when a government has lowered the personhood of certain individuals. The Nazi Party did that in 1930s Germany. The United States government did that when it came to slavery prior to the Civil War. In fact, any country throughout history did that when it came to slavery. The only way for certain levels of historical atrocities to be committed would have been to convince the population that some people were slightly less human than others.
The reason this has been true in the past is that the same government that determined personhood also controlled the military. When slavery was federally legalized in the United States, that same federal government could have used its military to ensure compliance among its states. Likewise, the Nazi regime controlled the military, and well, we know what happened there. Today, America is in a unique position in the course of history. This country has a stark divide between federal and state law. It is therefore entirely possible that the entity that determines personhood is not the same entity that controls the military.
And that divide was on full display last week when the Supreme Court overturned Roe. In doing so, the federal government is currently removed from determining the personhood status of the unborn. Regardless of anyone’s opinion on abortion, we should all be thankful for this. While personhood is the basis for how protected one is from harm, we should not want to empower a government with the ability to decide who is a person and who is not. That opens the gates for potential horrific travesties. Those travesties may not come today; they may not come tomorrow. But as long as the same people who run the military have the legal authority to determine one’s humanity, the threat is always there.
In saying this, one must realize that the federal government must continue to stay out of this in the future. This means that there should be no federal right to abortion, nor should there be a federal ban against abortion. And for all of the correct comparisons to the aforementioned atrocities throughout history, there is one simple difference between them and abortion: science. There is absolute consensus among biologists. A black slave in South Carolina in 1823 and a Jew in Nazi Germany are just as biologically human as their tormentors. However, when it comes to a fetus, there is no scientific consensus. For every study explaining how life begins at birth, there is another that explains that each fetus has his or her own genetic code that is different from the mother carrying him or her. Science does not and probably will not be able to deliver a consensus.
It is for this reason that one might think that we should err on the side of not murder, but again, when science does not bring a consensus, the federal government must remain out of the picture, especially given the fact that they control the greatest military power to ever have existed. This fight must remain in the states. The pro-life side would love to be able to ban abortions in the country. The pro-choice side would love to legalize it everywhere. They both can work to achieve that wish, but it needs to be 50-plus different arguments. Otherwise, we are opening ourselves up to tremendous potential backlash in the future.
Izzo Zwiren is the host of The Jewish Living Podcast, where he and his guests delve into any and all areas of Orthodox Judaism.