Print Edition: Feb. 22, 2015
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There’s a growing movement in states across the nation to legally define the personhood of the unborn child.
BY BARB ERNSTERREGISTER CORRESPONDENT
DENVER — It has gotten harder for
people to argue that abortion is merely the removal of a “blob of tissue.” Some
abortionists and activists will even admit that abortion kills a baby.
Ultrasound and biology affirm that
the human fetus is a human being. But abortion is still legal, and politicians
can still argue “it’s above my pay grade” to declare at what point an unborn
baby deserves human rights.
Enter the personhood movement.
A growing number of people are
working for statewide constitutional amendments and legislation that define
personhood from the moment of fertilization.
And in 2008, for the first time,
activists got a personhood amendment on a ballot for a popular vote. That was
“During that campaign, pro-abortion
forces were on the defense for the first time that I had ever seen in my
pro-life ministry,” noted Keith Mason, 28, one of the campaign organizers.
The initiative failed, but that only
energized organizers. In response to inquiries from around the country, Mason
formed Personhood USA with Cal Zastrow, which is now helping organizers in 32
states, where more than 40,000 grassroots volunteers are involved in
ballot-access petition initiatives and legislative efforts that have captured national
By focusing on the humanity of the
child in the womb, the movement offers tremendous educational value and is
helping motivate people around something that resonates with them and puts them
in an offense position, said Mason.
“The beauty of the personhood
movement is that it is both a legislative and a cultural movement,” said Judie
Brown, executive director of American Life League.
The organization is supporting
Personhood USA with strategic direction and advice.
“Anyone who has had a serious debate
about abortion knows that the issue isn’t whether the child in the womb is
alive but whether or not the child in the womb has the same intrinsic value as
you or me,” said Brown.
Problems With Amendment
Had the personhood amendment passed
in Colorado, abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, human cloning and chemical
contraceptives would have been unconstitutional. The expected court challenges
would be welcomed by Mason, who said “it’s about time” for a national debate on
the personhood of the unborn.
But some argue that it’s not the
right time. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference in Colorado and other states, such
as Florida, Montana, Mississippi, Missouri and North Dakota, where personhood
measures are under way, contend that this strategy might actually strengthen Roe
v. Wade rather than challenge it.
“There’s no indication that this
would have any bearing on trying to overturn Roe v. Wade, and you
can’t change federal law with a state amendment,” said Jennifer Kraska,
executive director of the Colorado Catholic Conference. “It would immediately
be challenged, and any state court would have to apply current law — and
current law is Roe v. Wade. We believe in the principle
of personhood, beginning at the moment of conception, but ... we disagree with
the strategy that Personhood USA is taking.”
There are other potential problems,
as well. Personhood Colorado has started a petition drive for the 2010 ballot,
but changed the language of the amendment from defining personhood from the
moment of fertilization to the moment of biological development. That same
language is being used in other personhood initiatives, which could be
confusing, said Kraska.
“To let the courts decide that would
be troubling. We don’t believe that the courts would come to an understanding
of biological development that would be acceptable in concert with Church
teaching,” she said. “We believe there are other measures that could move us
along the path of saving lives, which is what the bishops are obviously committed
According to Christopher Dodson,
executive director of the North Dakota Catholic Conference in Bismarck, Roe
wasn’t decided on the issue of personhood, and, therefore, the bishops support
a legal strategy that pushes for more protections for the unborn because they
weaken the nature of the “right” to an abortion.
“The result ... will be to convince
people that abortion is not a necessary evil and convince the court to allow
more and more regulation and restrictions on abortion. When that happens, the
political momentum will exist to pass a federal human-life amendment,” said
Dodson, a position that is supported by National Right to Life and Americans
United for Life.
Even without the bishops’ support, a
personhood bill easily passed the North Dakota House last session, but failed
in the state Senate.
Tim Lindgren, director of North
Dakota Life League, said the language was so simple and easy to understand, and
the bishops’ suggested amendments offered a completely new bill that was
totally unrelated to a personhood measure.
“The new bill was disingenuous, to
say the least. What they did is introduce a new bill, under the guise of an
amendment, for the purpose of appearing to be for the personhood bill while
actually opposing it,” said Lindgren. “We felt good about the (original)
language, and it was really popular in North Dakota, where we have a fairly
pro-life population and pro-life legislators. Even people who were generally
not pro-life voted for it.”
Said Dodson, of the North Dakota
Catholic Conference, “It saddens me to hear our Catholic bishops accused of
being disingenuous and duplicitous. Their commitment to the cause of life is
unwavering and sincere. The bishops made
clear in their March 12 statement that by offering the amendments they hoped to
establish in law the state’s intent to protect all human life from the moment
He said H.B. 1572 raised “many
unanswered questions” and could have lead to “unintended consequences and injustices
and would not achieve the goal of providing a direct challenge to Roe
v. Wade and its progeny.”
But Judie Brown added that
personhood “very simply recognizes that all human beings are persons and
deserve equal protection under the law. It is, literally, the fulfillment of
the civil-rights movement.”
That notion is behind the efforts of
Walter Hoye, founder of the California Civil Rights Foundation, which is
leading the effort to get a personhood amendment on the 2010 state ballot.
While supported by Personhood USA,
it is not officially part of the organization. Hoye, a black man and executive
elder with the Progressive Missionary Baptist Church of Berkeley, said the
concept of personhood resonates in particular with blacks, “who were once
“It’s time for us to have a frank
discussion about the role abortion is playing in African-American communities,”
Mason, who is inspired by those who
fought to end slavery and for civil rights, said personhood is about fighting
for what is right.
“Martin Luther King didn’t check
polls and public opinion before he took a stand,” he said. “If the United
States affirms human rights of the preborn child, it’s going to change the
Barb Ernster writes
from Fridley, Minnesota.
State By State
The effort to legally define the personhood of the unborn child is at
various stages in 32 states. PersonhoodUSA.com has an interactive map showing
Legislative measure to be introduced in 2010.
Petition language submitted for statute.
Petition language for personhood amendment submitted.
State senator lined up. Drafting a measure for 2010 legislative session.
Pursuing a state legislative measure.
Pursuing a state legislative measure.
Drafting language for initiative measure for 2010.
Just getting started.
Steering committee has been formed; opinion petition is being circulated.
Building personhood committee; looking for legislator to introduce language.
Group searching for legislator to introduce amendment.
Group started by high school class has started opinion petition; also, group of
pastors has joined to push the effort forward.
Delegate Don Dwyer will introduce personhood legislative measure in 2010.
Forming a steering committee.
Amendment has been introduced.
Steering committee is being organized.
Petition language approved: Planned Parenthood and American
Civil Liberties court challenge.
Petition language for personhood amendment submitted. Planned Parenthood and American Civil Liberties have filed lawsuit to challenge the
language of this personhood initiative.
Legislators are planning to introduce an amendment in 2010.
Meeting with pro-life legislators.
DAKOTA: Pursuing a state legislative measure for 2011 and
considering a petition amendment for 2010.
Drafting language and forming a steering committee.
Steering committee has been formed and working on language and sponsors.
Started gathering signatures; stalled by attorney general.
Grassroots coalition has been formed and opinion petition is being circulated;
legislative measure planned for 2010.
CAROLINA: Pursuing state legislative measure.
Steering committee formed; meeting with legislators to sponsor amendment.
Meeting with pro-life legislators.
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