Analysis and Commentary on Reproductive Law
Mississippi Initiative 26: The Significance of Saying That a “Person” Exists From Conception to Death

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on a Mississippi initiative that aims to amend the state’s constitution. If passed, the initiative would define a “person” to “include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.” The law, Colb notes, plainly clashes with Supreme Court precedent, by banning abortion even very early on in a pregnancy. However, Colb focuses, instead, on how the initiative raises the question of who is a person—arguing that this question only muddies the debate over abortion. She contends that there are two key debates about abortion: a factual debate about embryonic and fetal development, and a moral debate about the consequences of those facts (many of which are well established) for the law. Using the word “person,” Colb contends, might make the speaker seem as if he or she is stating a fact, but really should be characterized as reflecting the speaker’s normative point of view, whether it is pro-life or pro-choice—and thus, confuses the debate. To illustrate the point, Colb gives examples of several ways in which using the word “person” mixes moral and factual points and clouds clear thinking. She also points out that rhetorical problems here are not limited to the pro-life side, pointing out that it also clouds debate to refer to abortion as merely “health-care” as some pro-choice advocates do.

Meet our Columnists
Vikram David Amar
Vikram David Amar

Vikram David Amar is the Dean and Iwan Foundation Professor of Law at the University of Illinois... more

Neil H. Buchanan
Neil H. Buchanan

Neil H. Buchanan, an economist and legal scholar, holds the James J. Freeland Eminent Scholar... more

Sherry F. Colb
Sherry F. Colb

Sherry F. Colb is the C.S. Wong Professor of Law at Cornell University. Colb teaches courses in... more

John Dean
John Dean

John Dean served as Counsel to the President of the United States from July 1970 to April 1973.... more

Michael C. Dorf
Michael C. Dorf

Michael C. Dorf is the Robert S. Stevens Professor of Law at Cornell University Law School. He... more

Joanna L. Grossman
Joanna L. Grossman

Joanna L. Grossman is the Ellen K. Solender Endowed Chair in Women and Law at SMU Dedman School... more

Marci A. Hamilton
Marci A. Hamilton

MARCI A. HAMILTON is the Robert A. Fox Leadership Program Professor of Practice, and Fox Family... more

Joseph Margulies
Joseph Margulies

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Lesley Wexler
Lesley Wexler

Lesley Wexler is a Professor of Law at the University of Illinois College of Law. Immediately... more