Movement to establish ‘personhood’ of fetus gains ground in South, divides abortion opponents
Eager to prove their pro-life credentials in the increasingly Republican South, conservative lawmakers are pushing to define a fetus as a person from the moment of conception and spur a direct challenge to the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion decision.
By defining “personhood,” legislatures in Louisiana and Alabama are effectively considering whether to ban abortion, even in rape or incest cases. In Mississippi, a personhood amendment to the state Constitution will appear on the November ballot.
A national group plans to launch ballot initiatives for some Western and Midwestern states in coming weeks.
Lawmakers who support personhood acknowledge their bills would violate federal law. But that’s the point.
“By simply passing this bill, the lawsuits will come,” said Rep. John LaBruzzo, a Republican from Metairie, La.
The concept faces hurdles in law and public opinion.
Bills to define personhood don’t even always have the support of mainstream abortion opponents, such as the Roman Catholic Church.
Since Roe v. Wade, some states have enacted incremental restrictions, such as requirements for pre-abortion counseling, a waiting period before receiving the abortion or parental consent.
They have not been able to halt abortion, though a study published in the June issue of the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology found the abortion rate declined by 8 percent between 2000 and 2008. Still, an estimated 30 percent of U.S. women have an abortion by age 45, the study found.
“Nothing was going to ever change as long as we continued with what primarily has been a failed strategy,” Rebecca Kiessling, a pro-life lawyer from Michigan, told Louisiana lawmakers in May. She said states must outlaw abortion entirely — in a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade — in order to make a real difference.
The Supreme Court ruled that if a fetus were considered a person, the woman’s right to an abortion would “collapse.” But the court also analyzed state laws and religious views, finding no consensus on when life begins. So the Personhood Movement wants to put states on record as saying life begins at fertilization.
The Louisiana bill would define an “unborn child” as “the unborn offspring of human beings from the moment of fertilization until birth,” and would make abortion a crime.
If enacted, the bill would face an immediate challenge in the courts.
“You cannot institute a definition of life for everyone, and that’s what these bills are trying to do,” said Jordan Goldberg, the state advocacy counsel for the Center for Reproductive Rights. He called it “blatantly unconstitutional.”
In Alabama, meanwhile, a personhood bill is on the verge of passing both houses of the Legislature.
Sen. Phil Williams, a Republican from Rainbow City, introduced the bill to expand the definition of a “person” to include “any human being from the moment of fertilization and implantation in to the womb.” Legal experts — opponents and supporters of abortion rights — say this would ban abortion, even without language criminalizing the procedure.
The bill passed the Senate, 27-3, and was approved unanimously last week by the House health committee.
With both the Alabama and Louisiana bills on the move, supporters are encouraged.
Personhood USA, a Colorado-based group co-founded by Keith Mason and Cal Zastrow, worked with LaBruzzo to shape the Louisiana legislation. The umbrella group and its state affiliates, including Personhood Mississippi, lead ballot initiatives across the country.
Personhood Alabama is a joint project of Personhood USA and the Foundation for Moral law, which was established by former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore — a circuit judge who posted the Ten Commandments on a monument in his courtroom. He was ultimately removed from office for refusing to remove the monument.
Personhood USA, the American Life League and the Foundation for Moral Law support a constitutional personhood protection at the state and federal levels for developing fetuses and embryos.
But other abortion opponents are divided.
Both Alabama and Louisiana have Republican, anti-abortion governors, but neither has come out in support of the bills. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said he wants to resolve the “technical problems” that certain abortion opponents have with the personhood bill in his state. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley did not respond to a request for comment on the bill.
Meanwhile, Catholic Archbishop Thomas Rodi of Mobile, Ala., and Bishop Robert Baker of Birmingham, Ala., strongly support Williams’ bill. But the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops has declined to take a position on LaBruzzo’s.
Officials with Catholics for Choice, which supports abortion rights, says Catholic doctrine does not say that life begins at conception, which is why personhood bills can’t always count on the support of church officials.
David Nolan, a spokesman for Catholics for Choice, wrote in an e-mail that some see the personhood bills as less constructive than incremental anti-abortion steps, because they are more politically controversial and likely to be challenged in court.
But Ben DuPre, who works for both Personhood Alabama and the Foundation for Moral Law, said that abortion opponents have allowed themselves to be dissuaded by minor technical issues.
“We all want to protect all life, and so I think that I would invite all pro-life groups to get behind the Personhood Movement,” he said.
Personhood USA co-founder Keith Mason said supporters would prefer a state constitutional amendment, like the one proposed in Mississippi, over legislation. An amendment would be less vulnerable to a legal challenge, he says, and would put the concept of personhood directly in front of the people.
“We’re identifying the people that are the most hardcore pro-life in the country, and we’re activating them,” said Mason.
He said the group will soon have petition drives in all 28 states that allow voter referendums. They’ll launch such efforts in North Dakota, Ohio and Montana in coming weeks.
In Colorado, a personhood amendment has made it to the ballot twice and been rejected by voters.
But that defeat isn’t permanent, say abortion rights supporters. Marjorie Signer is a spokeswoman for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. She says Colorado voters will likely see the issue on their ballots again, since the state requires fewer signatures than other states.
“It’s important in a way that it lost overwhelmingly both times that it was on, but it’s not conclusive,” Signer said.
A Mississippi ballot initiative scheduled for a vote in November is polling well, Mason said, but Personhood Mississippi is still struggling to keep it on the ballot.
Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union challenged the referendum in state court. They argued that redefining a person would modify and add to the state Bill of Rights, in violation of the state constitution, but the circuit court ruled that the plaintiffs hadn’t met their legal burden. They appealed to the state Supreme Court, which will hear arguments June 6.
The Personhood Movement has lost similar court battles in Nevada, Missouri and Alaska. Mason says Planned Parenthood and the ACLU have challenged the referendum in every state where signature drives have succeeded.
“They’ve really been a stumbling block for the direct democracy process, and I think that’s the same thing that’s happening in Mississippi,” he said.
But the personhood strategy also stumbles over disagreement about when life begins.
Personhood bills have failed to pass several legislatures this year, including Virginia and North Dakota. And a May 23 Gallup poll found that only 51 percent of Americans believe that abortion is “morally wrong,” and less than half of the country identifies itself as “pro-life.”
Mason shrugs off these divisions. He and other personhood supporters say that their view, however uncommonly held, represents common sense.
“To be human is enough, and that’s what we’re pointing out is personhood,” he said.
This article was distributed by the Associated Press.