Promoting Personhood

There’s a growing movement in states across the nation to legally define the personhood of the unborn child.

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 in Colorado.

“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 media attention.

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 to doing.”

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.

African-American Support

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 of conception.”

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 considered nonpersons.”

“It’s time for us to have a frank discussion about the role abortion is playing in African-American communities,” Hoye said.

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 world.”

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. has an interactive map showing their status:

ALABAMA: Legislative measure to be introduced in 2010.

ALASKA: Petition language submitted for statute.

CALIFORNIA: Petition language for personhood amendment submitted.

COLORADO: Collecting signatures.

DELAWARE: State senator lined up. Drafting a measure for 2010 legislative session.

FLORIDA: Collecting signatures.

GEORGIA: Pursuing a state legislative measure.

HAWAII: Pursuing a state legislative measure.

IDAHO: Drafting language for initiative measure for 2010.

ILLINOIS: Just getting started.

INDIANA: Steering committee has been formed; opinion petition is being circulated.

KANSAS: Building personhood committee; looking for legislator to introduce language.

KENTUCKY: Group searching for legislator to introduce amendment.

LOUISIANA: Group started by high school class has started opinion petition; also, group of pastors has joined to push the effort forward.

MARYLAND: Delegate Don Dwyer will introduce personhood legislative measure in 2010.

MASSACHUSETTS: Forming a steering committee.

MICHIGAN: Amendment has been introduced.

MINNESOTA: Steering committee is being organized.


MISSOURI: Petition language approved: Planned Parenthood and American Civil Liberties court challenge.

MONTANA: Collecting signatures.

NEVADA: Petition language for personhood amendment submitted. Planned Parenthood and American Civil Liberties have filed lawsuit to challenge the language of this personhood initiative.

NEW MEXICO: Legislators are planning to introduce an amendment in 2010.

NEW YORK: Meeting with pro-life legislators.

NORTH DAKOTA: Pursuing a state legislative measure for 2011 and considering a petition amendment for 2010.

OHIO: Drafting language and forming a steering committee.

OKLAHOMA: Steering committee has been formed and working on language and sponsors.

OREGON: Started gathering signatures; stalled by attorney general.

PENNSYLVANIA: Grassroots coalition has been formed and opinion petition is being circulated; legislative measure planned for 2010.

SOUTH CAROLINA: Pursuing state legislative measure.

TEXAS: Steering committee formed; meeting with legislators to sponsor amendment.

VIRGINIA: Meeting with pro-life legislators.