Why Personhood Amendments are Total Losers
For the fourth time, Colorado voters rejected a statewide personhood constitutional amendment in the November election cycle. The 2014 Colorado Definition of Personhood Initiative, or Amendment 67, was yet another attempt to establish personhood for the fetus via a statewide ballot initiative. Personhood has appeared on the ballot in Colorado three times, including 2008, 2010 and 2014. This doesn’t include the 2012 version that failed to gather enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. The 2014 Colorado personhood initiative was the latest iteration of a sleight of hand attempt to unravel the right to safe legal abortion.
The Amendment 67 campaign was organized around Heather Surovik, whose pregnancy ended when she was hit by a drunk driver. As the face of the amendment, Surovik spoke about how the amendment would remedy a lax criminal code and make the drunk driver that hit her accountable. Personhood USA, the activists behind the personhood campaign, sought to focus the campaign on women and their “protection.” In fact, proponents of the amendment went so far in disguising the amendment to make it appear as merely a revision to the criminal code in order protect women. This strategy even confused some voters in their own base, who had to be reassured that the amendment was in fact a personhood amendment.
Opposition to Amendment 67, the Vote No 67 campaign, was a broad-based alliance of large and small organizations consisting of reproductive rights groups, faith-based groups, civil rights and liberties watchdogs, voting rights advocates, legal organizations and more. More than 70 organizations stood in opposition to the amendment and worked to defeat it. The strategy was based on articulating the harm of amendments like 67, exposing their true intent and de-mythologizing how such amendments impede women’s autonomy and conscience-based decisions.
At the end of the day, even as proponents of the 2014 personhood amendment applied new tactics to an old routine, they still lost. The question of respect for women’s autonomy, women’s consciences and real women’s lives went unacknowledged, and the voters saw through it.
One would think such a clear defeat would signal the end for the personhood initiative. However, the personhood campaign has not historically been deterred by the voice of the voter. If you look at the past campaigns, I think we will see another thinly-veiled attempt in Colorado to eliminate all abortion access in the state. There will be déjà vu, again.
In 2008, a young woman named Kristine Burton— a student at Oak Brook College of Law and Government, a small, online Christian college—wanted to create a definition of “when life begins that would protect the unborn.” According to the Denver Post, an attorney friend, Mark Meuser, drafted the language for what would become Amendment 48, which would have defined any human being from the moment of fertilization as a “person.” With the help of her family they launched a campaign to qualify for the ballot with their newly created organization, Colorado for Equal Rights. They hired organizer Keith Mason, who coordinated the signature gathering for the petition. Mason had worked for Operation Rescue driving a truck plastered with graphic signs of aborted fetuses around locales, particularly near women’s health centers. He saw a path to make a bigger impact in Colorado. After a concentrated signature drive, they qualified for the 2008 ballot with the needed 76,000 petitions. It was the first time in the nation that fetal personhood would appear as a state constitutional amendment on a ballot initiative. Amendment 48, or the Colorado Definition of Person Initiative, was headed to the voters.
By all accounts, Burton was a disciplined spokesperson for the measure. A 2008 interview with Denver Westword News depicted Burton as “a wind-up doll” that was always sticking to her claim that “the initiative simply [creates] a concrete definition for when life begins so that people could reasonably debate the issues.” Though self-controlled, when pressed more deeply by the media about the Pandora’s Box of harmful consequences the amendment would open, Burton’s responses suggested a kind of innocent glibness, showing that she was incapable or unwilling to acknowledge the amendment’s vast potential problems.
One would think such a clear defeat would signal the end for the personhood initiative.
At least publicly, the amendment was simply about creating a clear definition for when life begins. The truer insight into the motivation behind the amendment is seen in the proclamation from Burton, who as an early teen vowed to “defend the unborn,” or in ads surrounding the campaign that used language and images from Roe v. Wade. In these, Justice Potter Stewart suggests to attorney Sarah Weddington that “if it were established that an unborn fetus is a person…. [Y]ou would have an almost impossible case.” Herein lies the real strategy behind personhood initiatives: dismantle the protection from the Roe v. Wade decision. Other rhetoric was simply distraction.
The Protect Families, Protect Choice Coalition organized the successful effort to defeat the initiative in 2008. Explaining the far-reaching ramifications—quashing birth control use, criminalizing women and doctors, and creating costly, legal quagmires—convinced voters to defeat Amendment 48 by a nearly three-to-one margin. Contributing to the defeat was the fact that even the antichoice movement itself was divided over the amendment. Both the National Right to Life Committee and Colorado’s Catholic bishops declined support for fear of legal challenges that might backfire and make it more difficult to eventually reverse Roe, according to the Real Clear Politics news site. The bishops essentially feared the measure could be thrown out in a legal challenge that would only serve to reaffirm the right to choose. This tactical disagreement over the means to achieve the ultimate goal of eliminating legal access to abortion is in many ways a microcosm of the history of the modern antichoice movement. That is, a story of seasoned, established antichoice groups like the Catholic bishops spurning uncontrollable, sometimes naïve and often troubled splinter groups dissatisfied with current progress. These splinter groups espoused edgier, less effective, or even contrary strategies, much to the chagrin of the bishops and their allies.
In the aftermath of their 2008 failure, these splinter groups mustered and formed Personhood USA. Its mission was “to serve Jesus by being an advocate for those who cannot speak for themselves, the pre-born child.” The leader of the newly formed group was none other than Keith Mason, the former organizer for Colorado for Equal Rights, which had organized the 2008 personhood campaign in Colorado. Personhood USA focused on personhood initiatives on a national level, including supporting the efforts of Colorado Personhood USA. They partnered with Colorado Right to Life to collect petition signatures for another attempt at an initiative in 2010. Though they changed the ballot language slightly, they sought “constitutional rights for individuals at the beginning of biological development,” still adhering to their goal of collapsing abortion rights. Their intent was to tighten the language because the 2008 language did not cover everyone they intended. Gualberto Garcia Jones, director of the Colorado chapter of Personhood USA, stepped in as a more experienced director than Burton had been for Colorado for Equal Rights. The retooled language again represented a split within the antichoice movement. The incrementalists want to chip away at abortion rights, eventually making it impossible or extraordinarily difficult for most, and the absolutists who want nothing less than full reversal of Roe v. Wade. Personhood USA took an approach that offered no concessions. Rather than draw on the lesson that they needed to broaden their appeal with different, perhaps sharper, language, they chose language that arguably exacerbated the problems of the former initiative. Still, they qualified for the 2010 ballot with more than the necessary signatures.
Opposition to the 2010 Colorado Fetal Personhood Initiative included a broad range of organizations. They worked in collaboration to advocate for women’s autonomy and spread the word about the harm and burdensome consequences of the amendment, which made the use of birth control or in vitro fertilization questionable or illegal. Once again, when voters learned what the measure could mean for women and their families, the amendment was defeated. In November, Amendment 62, with its purpose to enact fetal personhood in Colorado, was defeated 71 percent to 29 percent.
Despite these defeats, Personhood USA moved forward with a personhood initiative in Mississippi, where they failed again. In 2011, Mississippi voters fought back against a personhood ballot initiative from the heart of the Bible Belt.
Not to be deterred, Personhood USA and Colorado Right to Life tried a third time in Colorado. This proposed amendment was similar to the 2010 initiative. It defined “person” in the state constitution as “every human being regardless of the method of creation” and “human being” as “a member of the species homo sapiens at any stage of development.”
Some antichoice activists seemed wary of putting forth a personhood initiative in a presidential election year. For example, Steven Ertelt, founder and editor of LifeNews.com, wrote in a December 21, 2010, article on RedState.com that, “In order to defeat Obama and ultimately stop abortions, personhood amendments must be put aside in 2012 so the pro-life community can focus on the number one goal: installing a pro-life president who will put the nation in a position to legally protect unborn children.”
Ultimately, the personhood proposal failed to collect enough signatures, and thus did not qualify for the state ballot in 2012.
Based on the strategy of the 2014 Colorado Personhood USA campaign, it’s clear that they learned some lessons from their previous attempts to amend the Colorado state constitution. Rather than simply relying on their message of protecting the “unborn” while ignoring real women’s consciences, the campaign was organized around Surovik’s tragic story.
The opposition to the amendment also used personal testimony to speak to the facts. A part of the winning strategy of Vote No 67 was presenting the truth of women’s real lives: women need access to abortion, contraception and in vitro fertilization. The campaign used personal testimony to address women’s autonomy and moral agency and the real harm of the amendment.
Catholics for Choice and Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights (COLOR) joined efforts. Together, we provided a space for Catholics and others across the state to speak what was in their hearts. Catholics know that an amendment that dismisses the moral autonomy and agency of women and prevents access to critically-needed services and healthcare is inherently unjust. Catholic tradition and teaching provides Catholics with the grounding to act courageously. The campaign helped people connect their faith to their agitation and provided avenues for them to take action. When everyday Catholics stand for women’s autonomy and are called to speak their conscience for themselves and other women, it is a powerful voice that can make a difference.
A previous fight over the reproductive health bill in the 2013 legislative session revealed the necessity for Catholic prochoice voices to be present, visible and supported. CFC’s presence during the Vote No 67 campaign encouraged numerous volunteers, stakeholders and campaign staff to examine their personal connection to their own work. Some shared moving stories of their relationship with their Catholic faith, including how they distanced themselves from the church because of the hierarchy’s severity on reproductive health. CFC provided an opportunity to reclaim that identity and recognize how it informed people’s activism.
While the Vote No 67 and COLOR campaigns canvassed, phone banked and reached out to the media, COLOR and CFC recognized that values-based messages would be helpful to build Catholic support for the campaign. CFC led a message training with the executive committee of the Vote No 67 campaign and staff, helping integrate faith and values-based prochoice messages and framework into the wider campaign communications strategy.
Together, CFC and COLOR developed print and radio ads aimed at rallying Catholic and Latina voters in Colorado, lifting up the words of everyday Catholics from across the state who articulated why they were against the amendment. Full-page ads ran in local newspapers across the state, reaching a quarter million Coloradans, and a CFC activist was featured in a Denver weekly bilingual ad. COLOR and CFC also collaborated on a series of radio ads in English and Spanish, which ran in every major market in Colorado. In the spots, Catholic voters expressed their opposition to Amendment 67 and civil rights legend Dolores Huerta lent her voice as a Catholic and a Latina. Colorado voters spoke passionately and eloquently about their faithfulness as Catholics and their strong opposition to the amendment due to their faith.
Proponents of the Colorado personhood initiatives have managed to gain a few points at the ballot box. In 2008, the initiative lost 73 to 26; in 2010 it was defeated 71 to 29; in 2014 it lost 65 to 35. Including the 2011 Mississippi ballot and a similar measure in 2014 in North Dakota, that makes five failed attempts. Will these losses stop personhood ballot initiatives from sprouting up again?
Unfortunately, probably not. It’s likely we will see them again for two reasons. First, the groups behind this effort are single-minded in their purpose, determined to press the issue despite continued voter rejection. Second, personhood supporters are not easily co-opted by the other elements of the antichoice movement, who disagree with their strategy. In many ways, Personhood USA even stands outside the mainstream political right. While politically minded strategists tend to use ballot initiatives to influence voter turnout and drive up their base support, Personhood USA goals are more parochial. Tactically, they are willing to operate without the support of even their conservative friends. Despite the failures of the past, it is likely they will continue on, even with minimal support.
However, the latest mumblings of Personhood USA suggest that they may finally recognize that statewide constitutional amendments don’t work to establish a personhood foothold. A recent article on LifeSiteNews.com suggests a willingness “to start engaging in more asymmetrical tactics, and this means engaging the enemy in municipalities and counties that we know we control.” It remains to be seen whether this becomes their futile strategy, blind to reality, which has failed them thus far . It is nearly certain, though, that we will see efforts to enact personhood again one way or another.
Regardless of how, where or what tactics Personhood USA employs in these ongoing efforts, we know they lose when voters see the truth. We succeeded in stopping them yet again in Colorado because we elevated the importance of women’s autonomy. We demonstrated the harm to real women and their families. We raised the importance of protecting and respecting women’s conscience-based decisions.
In the end, we won by showing the personhood amendment for what it was: an effort to eliminate all abortion access in the state. Proponents of the measure did a poor job representing and connecting with the real needs of women because at its heart, the ballot initiative was not about women, but about providing a foothold to eliminate abortion. One cannot pretend that it helps women to force a constitutional amendment that makes a fetus and a woman equal in the eyes of the law.
Catholics are inspired to speak out against injustice because it’s rooted in our Catholic tradition and teachings. When everyday Catholics boldly claim their faith and speak out against what is inherently unjust—against laws that will leave women unable to access important healthcare and services—it is a powerful reminder of what can be achieved. When Catholics speak the truth, we win.
Coloradans were not fooled: Catholics and non-Catholics alike, they chose women’s autonomy and overwhelmingly voted no.