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Culture of Death: Who Gets to Be a Person in Mississippi? | The Nation

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Patricia J. Williams

Patricia J. Williams

The online diary of a mad law professor.

Culture of Death: Who Gets to Be a Person in Mississippi?

On November 8, Mississippi is set to vote on Measure 26, a ballot initiative that would redefine the state’s Bill of Rights to extend the protections of personhood to include “every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.” It is striking that the measure, which is largely motivated by religious concerns about the sanctity of human existence, crops up in a state that has one of the lowest indices for overall quality of life—whenever it might begin—in the entire country: the infant mortality rate over the last decade is about 10 per 1,000 live births, with black babies dying at twice the rate of white babies. Mississippi leads the country in obesity and ranks forty-sixth in the number of state residents who have health insurance. It suffers from high death rates from cancer and heart disease. Twenty-three percent of the population lives below the poverty level, giving Mississippi the unenviable distinction of ranking dead last in the nation.

With the odds of survival so relatively skewed, it is no wonder that there might be some anxiety over preserving the very idea of life. Then, too, the legal category of “personhood” seems particularly capacious since Citizens United; if such a label protects corporations, banks and homeowners’ associations—and don’t they seem to be thriving!—what blessings might it extend to a zygote, that abstracted conception of future stock, human capital, mortal enterprise?

As I write, the seven billionth person is said to be entering this earthly dimension. That statistic has been reported with Malthusian apprehension, as well it might. The resources of the world are not infinitely replenishable; much of the planet’s ecology risks systemic collapse as a result of habitat degradation, global warming, invasive species and thoughtless exploitation; and the superpowers continue to go to war with one another over dismally non-sustainable energy sources like oil, gas and coal. Add in the uncertain-to-teetering economies just about everywhere, and it isn’t hard to fathom the dangerous contradictions of those who feel both deep resentment about the mad global competition to make ends meet, and simultaneously, a frantic “need” to propagate more of “our kind” because “we” are too few—regardless of actual numbers or common well-being. It’s as though we are walking a tightrope stretched between fetishism of the fetus and an abyss of human disposability.

When, during a recent Republican debate, the audience cheered the fact that Rick Perry had overseen more executions than any governor in modern history, there was at least a momentary shudder among the punditocracy. What did it mean that a numbered batch of bodies was cause for such applause? Perhaps this is the new metric for presidential success: executions and summary assassinations, as though the scales of justice were measured in people-poundage, with some being heavier or lighter, depending on strangely monetized equivalences. There have been too many events of late that have been framed by our political and media spokespeople as measured by some curious human exchange rate. Does the targeted killing of unindicted US citizens like Anwar Al-Awlaki and his 16-year old son “equal” resolution for the violence he may have preached? Does the grisly display of Muammar Qaddafi’s body flung in a refrigerated meat locker “account” for the lost lives in Lockerbie? And whether you deem the late Troy Davis guilty or innocent, his execution was a stark example of how much habeas corpus has been whittled away in recent years, his death an indirect product of curtailed access to judicial appeal and substantive justice—limitations that are justified with reference to "time spent,” and “tax dollars.”

Indeed, Davis’s legal representation was severely compromised by crippling cuts in state and federal funding for the Georgia Resource Center, which represented him and other indigent prisoners in post-conviction hearings. His appeal was also hobbled by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which prohibits prisoners from raising, post-conviction, evidence that they might have presented at trial, no matter how probative or substantive.

Embryos notwithstanding, we seem less and less invested in protections for the sanctity of life in the here and now. Can’t let things go on forever, after all. Costs a bundle.

Recently, the state of Texas decided to do away with the last meal for death row inmates, that terminal rite of agency, of choice, of taking leave of the sensory. From now on, the condemned will have to eat whatever hash is being dished up in the commissary. Of course, the tradition of granting requests in one’s last meal is premised on a superstition of sorts, a fiction of making peace, of showing mercy, of stilling spirit. In Louisiana’s Angola Prison, for example, the warden shares that meal with the doomed, a kind of final communion. In other places and times, a last drink or a coin to the executioner might serve as the bridge between life and impending death, a marking of the day as Unlike Any Other. The killing of a human being, whether considered legally justified or not, is momentous, mysterious, a repercussive tragedy no matter how reprehensible the record of that life. There will always be those who wreak havoc in society, and who then sneer from the grave or the brink of it; there is, no doubt, a very human urge to give them a little shove into the great beyond. But the entire purpose of just governance is to model respect and to provide restraint in the face of such urges.

When, instead, our government is viewed solely as something to protect “us” against “them” to the exclusion of it being a constitutive force as well, the social world turns into a zero-sum game, in which others’ success at survival means less for you. That mindset engenders a mean little flare of relief every time there’s news of one less ne’er-do-well post-born mouth to feed. That not-so-subtle channeling of emotion toward the facile rendering of death distracts us from the policy choices that might make life more tolerable—preventive healthcare, basic housing, public education—even in our unnatural numbers. It allows us to ignore the inconsistency between gracing the mute quiescence of a fertilized egg with personhood while failing to endow the more lively political quests of the American Dream.

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