You'd think 21-year-old Kristi Burton would be feted by the pro-life establishment. Though she still lives with her parents in Peyton, Colo., and is only partway through law school, Burton has already succeeded where other anti-abortion activists have failed: Last month she got a proposed amendment to her state's constitution on the ballot that defines a fertilized human egg as a person, the first in the nation. Amendment 48 allows a challenge to the very legality of abortion and has at least a chance of passing, thanks to Burton's sheer single-mindedness. Last June she founded her own group, Colorado for Equal Rights, and recruited her parents as its first volunteers and donors. Burton spent 40-hour weeks canvassing at churches and garden shows. She needed 76,000 signatures to get the measure on the ballot; she collected more than 130,000. The group now has eight staff members and more than $500,000 in donations.
Yet Burton has not received much support for Amendment 48 from her most natural allies—the country's major pro-life groups. Heavyweights like National Right to Life and Americans United for Life are not backing it. "There are other ways to protect human life that we focus on because we believe they are the most effective," says Clark Forsythe, president of Americans United for Life. Although pro-life leaders generally agree with Burton that life begins at fertilization, they fear a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade would ultimately be slapped down by the Supreme Court—still at least one vote shy of an anti-Roe majority—setting back the movement. "The established pro-life movement feels … we should stop trying to overturn Roe because the time isn't right," says Richard Thompson, president of the Thomas More Law Center, a conservative public-interest firm that has advised Amendment 48. "Then there is this huge grassroots movement saying it's immoral not to try and save innocent lives."
Part of the pro-life hesitance is bound up with the amendment's novelty. No state has ever voted on a "personhood amendment," as it is called, and it's unclear what happens when you grant a fertilized egg constitutional rights. Burton believes it would give the state legal grounds to promote an anti-abortion agenda. "This is not a direct abortion ban, but it lays the foundation for the voters to direct their legislature and courts to do everything they can to protect life," she tells NEWSWEEK. More significantly, Burton and her legal advisors expect pro-choice groups to challenge the amendment, offering the Supreme Court an opportunity to reconsider Roe. On the other side of the issue, pro-choice groups fear the amendment would not only ban abortion, but also outlaw certain types of birth control, in vitro fertilization and stem-cell research.
All of this has left established pro-life groups in a tough spot: How can they back away from a measure that, if passed, would achieve exactly what they say they want? Some are siding with Burton even though they worry the amendment is risky. Focus on the Family, an influential Christian group, endorsed Amendment 48 in early August. "You can have differences in strategy and may not think it's the best, but it's a pro-life initiative … and we support that," says spokeswoman Carrie Gordon Earll. Other groups worry that a defeat would have broader consequences for the pro-life movement. "If it's defeated 60-40, or even 70-30, what does that say to lawmakers?" says Forsythe. (A mid-October poll shows 35 percent of the voters support the amendment, 55 percent oppose it and 10 percent are undecided).
Back in Colorado, pro-life politicians have remained largely neutral. "[They] are staying out of it altogether because they realize that this is a race that needs to be run to the middle," says Floyd Ciruli, a Colorado political analyst. Republican senate candidate Bob Schaffer does not support Amendment 48. "I do greatly respect Kristi Burton and you have to admire her accomplishments," says Dick Wadhams, Schaffer's campaign manager. "But there is disagreement over whether this is the right thing to do at this time." The state Republican Party will remain neutral.
Burton, meanwhile, is undeterred. She's been out-fundraised by about 3 to 1 by her opponents, but held on to a base of support around 35 to 40 percent, numbers that have stayed steady since the summer. Her volunteers now number 2,000 scattered across 500 churches. About her pro-life critics, she says, "I wish we could get on the same side, fighting for the same thing." If her efforts fail in November? She's already received a dozen calls from activists who want to pursue similar efforts in 2009 or 2010. "Maybe I'll do it again," she says. "Maybe someone else will. But this isn't going away."