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Mississippi, abortion and moral clarity

Moral clarity is one of the most seductive traits of social conservatism.

Those of us outside that ideology may struggle to untie the Gordian knot of complex moral issues, may wrestle conscience in hopes of compromise, may construct arguments in tenuous terms of, "If this, then that, but if the other thing, then ..." Social conservatives countenance no such irresolution. On issue after issue -- same-sex marriage, gun control, Muslim rights -- they fly straight as a bullet to their final conclusion, usually distillable to the width of a bumper sticker.

So last week's election result in Mississippi comes as a seismic shock. By a significant margin -- 58 percent to 42 percent -- voters rejected an anti-abortion amendment to the state constitution defining the fertilized human egg as a person, with all the rights and protections attendant thereto.

That bears repeating. Mississippi, after all, is the Deep South of the Deep South, ranked the most conservative state in the union in a 2011 Gallup poll. Yet, given a chance to essentially outlaw abortion and set up a Roe v. Wade showdown in the Supreme Court, the state said an emphatic no.

Granted, this came in the context of voters around the country rejecting a number of conservatism's more extreme ideas, including the defeat of an Ohio measure limiting the collective bargaining rights of public workers. Still, the Mississippi vote stands out. Opponents argued -- and voters apparently agreed -- that conferring personhood upon a fertilized egg would have far-reaching implications, affecting not only a woman's right to an abortion but also her right to use birth control, get pregnant through in-vitro fertilization, or receive treatment in the event of pregnancy complications.

And yet, isn't that exactly what anti-abortion forces have always argued, life begins at conception? It is telling that, given a chance to enshrine that belief into law (and confront all the new moral conundrums that would entail), Mississippi rejected it instead.

Moral clarity is inherently more compelling than moral irresolution, the starkness of black and white preferable to the foggy opacity of the grays. Unfortunately for them, it is precisely in the grays where those who support a woman's right to choose are required to make their stand. Nobody "likes" abortion. Nobody, not even the most ardent defender of choice, disputes the sacredness of human life.

But we balance that against the conviction that there is something totalitarian in the idea that the state can force a woman to bear a child that she, for whatever reason -- incest, rape, illness, deformity or grinding poverty -- does not wish to bear.

Most of us will never have to make that call, for which most of us should be thankful. And many of us believe the best thing we can do is leave it at that, leave the decision in the hands of the women it impacts and wish them Godspeed.

But some would arrogate that decision unto the state under the guise of moral clarity. The Mississippi vote, then, is instructive. It finds the nation's most conservative state essentially conceding that moral clarity is sometimes as false as it is seductive -- and that there are some calls the state cannot and should not make.

There's a term for that belief: pro-choice.

Leonard Pitts' column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. His email is lpitts@miamiherald.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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