Pro-Life Activists Push Personhood Initiatives

Just about a year ago, volunteer pro-life activist Kristi Brown's life revolved around Amendment 48. The amendment, if passed, would have revised Colorado's state constitution to define a fertilized egg as a person, thereby outlawing abortion. While activists in other states had pursued similar initiatives, Brown (then Burton; she recently married) was the first to collect the requisite number of signatures needed for a spot on a state ballot. She worked 12-, 16-, sometimes 18-hour days and collected nearly double the 76,000 signatures she needed. In the days leading up to the vote on Nov. 4, 2008, Brown had 2,000 volunteers in 500 churches working to pass Amendment 48.

But Amendment 48 did not come anywhere near passing. Coloradans voted definitively against the measure, 73 to 27 percent. Which makes it surprising that, a year later, Brown describes herself as "very happy" with the outcome. She remembers the atmosphere at campaign headquarters on the night of the loss as optimistic, almost unfazed by a 46-point margin of defeat. "When we saw the final numbers and realized that we had lost," she explains, "the main thing going through a lot of our heads was: this is a start, and now we need to keep going. One defeat isn't going to stop anything. This isn't the end."

When you survey the landscape a year later, Brown's prediction seems spot on: despite Amendment 48's failure at the polls, it triggered a national push for personhood ballot initiatives. There are now seven state-level personhood groups gathering signatures for 2010 ballots, compared with three in 2008. New campaigns kick off regularly, many with leaders who cite Amendment 48 as their inspiration. They're working under the umbrella of a new anti-abortion-rights organization, Personhood USA, founded a year ago, the day after the Amendment 48 vote, to coordinate all the personhood activism happening across the country. Even in Colorado, there's now a 2010 initiative moving forward with full force. "We have to do it again here because Colorado was a catalyst for the country," says Gualberto Garcia Jones, director of Personhood Colorado. Brown advises the campaign but is mostly focused on finishing her law degree. "If we just gave up after one try, it would be discouraging to the rest of the country."

The idea that life begins at conception has always been at the center of anti-abortion-rights ideology but rarely pursued as a legislative goal. Instead, activists set their sights on smaller, more obtainable restrictions on abortion, such as requiring ultrasounds or parental consent for minors. The personhood amendment can be understood as a backlash to that approach. "We're saying let's get down to business," says Cal Zastrow, cofounder of Personhood USA. "We don't want restrictions. We want to abolish the murder of children, and a personhood amendment does that." The rise of personhood as a political strategy reflects a rising frustration among activists, who say the incremental approach has done little to reduce abortions in the United States.

The personhood strategy grew out of a line in Roe v. Wade, the 1973 court decision legalizing abortion, in which Justice Harry Blackmun responded to the argument of the state of Texas that a fetus is a person under the Fourteenth Amendment. "If this suggestion of personhood is established," Blackmun wrote, "[Jane Roe's] case, of course, collapses, for the fetus' right to life would then be guaranteed specifically by the amendment." So if personhood begins at conception, the thinking goes, Roe falls apart.

In the early years of the pro-life movement, this interpretation influenced the policy approach: nine versions of personhood bills (then termed human-life amendments, or HLAs) were introduced in Congress between 1973 and 1983. But only the 1983 version made it to a full floor vote, and when it failed by an 18-vote margin, the strategy largely dissipated, save for a few activists introducing similar bills in state legislatures. The large, Washington-based groups turned their attention to laws restricting access to abortion. Personhood reemerged as an issue in 2005, when activists in Mississippi pursued signatures for a ballot initiative, followed by Michigan in 2006 and Georgia in 2007. All three failed to gather enough signatures to land on a ballot. By 2008, three more states had active personhood campaigns, and Colorado became the first to land an initiative on a ballot. Now, just one year after its founding, Personhood USA has 37 state-level affiliates, seven of which are already gathering signatures for potential 2010 votes. One recent report estimates that the leading personhood groups have raised nearly $60 million in the past five years.

What caused the recent swell in personhood activism? A generational shift within the movement, experts say. "This is a transition moment," says Ziad Munson, a sociologist at Lehigh University who studies the pro-life movement. "The people leading the mainstream groups started in the 1970s as young activists and are essentially reaching retirement age. As a new generation of leaders comes into the movement, that introduces the possibility of new ideas." In studying the movement, Munson has seen a general shift in power from large groups with powerful connections in Washington, such as the National Right to Life Committee, to grassroots activists, generally younger and less inhibited about pursuing less tested methods. Or, in the case of personhood, a method tested two decades ago but largely new to a fresh generation of leaders.

Among this new generation of activists, there's a sense that the movement has sacrificed too much and gained too little with its pragmatic, incremental approach. Roe has stood for 36 years without any major changes or scaling back. "I think we're one of the most failed movements in the history of movements," says Garcia Jones. "To claim a huge success for going from 1.3 to 1.1 million abortions is ludicrous. After you fail long enough, I feel like it is pragmatic to start something new." He says it is time for the pro-life movement to start demanding exactly what it wants: human rights beginning at conception.

Younger activists have also come of age in an era of increased use of ballot initiatives. Between 1998 and 2006, the number of voter-run ballot initiatives shot up by nearly 30 percent. With more than half of ballot measures approved by voters, they are an appealing option for activists. Barack Obama's strong ground game in 2008 reinforced the notion that grassroots organizing is a force to be reckoned with. "You see Obama people who still have stickers on their car, even after he won," says Garcia Jones. "They feel a personal investment. That's what we want."

Personhood amendments are a gamble; they could take years to pass. But if they eventually do, the payoff is big: a challenge to Roe that those in the movement believe could outlaw abortion. So activists are apt to compare their mission to those of civil rights and women's suffrage, both of which endured through decades of failed attempts to change the law. "It's the moral principle that it's a person," says Zastrow. "The preborn child is just as much a human being as a middle-aged adult. So why would we compromise on its rights?"

While personhood has excited grassroots activists, the mainstream, established groups have been unenthusiastic, generally declining to support the amendments. They view personhood as an imprudent overreach that could hinder the movement's progress as a whole. Some question whether defining personhood at the state level would actually create a challenge to Roe. And, even if it did, the Supreme Court could just as well reaffirm the decision, rather than overturn it. A recent statement from the Florida Catholic Conference, which represents the state's bishops—a group that declined to support the personhood effort there—argues that "the unintended effect would very likely jeopardize current protections in state law and cause a loss of momentum."

As the senior counsel at Americans United for Life, the country's oldest pro-life group, Clarke Forsythe has repeatedly questioned the personhood strategy, promoting a more prudent approach to pro-life activism. He, like many other pro-life leaders, finds himself torn by the amendments: supportive ideologically of declaring a fetus a person, but unsure whether that's the best approach. "Personally, I too would like one all-encompassing solution that we could focus on like a laser," Forsythe wrote in the conclusion to Politics for the Greatest Good: The Case for Prudence in the Public Square, published earlier this year. "But ... the political and social obstacles clearly prevent such a solution in the foreseeable future."

Activists admit that the lack of support from mainstream groups is a challenge. "Unity in the pro-life movement would have helped," says Brown about the 2008 Colorado effort. "There were Colorado groups that didn't actively support us. I think if other states can do better at that, it'll help them." All the personhood ballots are still in nascent stages; signatures are not due until early to late 2010. And activists in multiple groups NEWSWEEK spoke with insisted that even if they don't pass a personhood amendment this time, they will still have made progress. Brown holds on to the same optimism she had a year ago. "You can't get discouraged," she says. "You can't give up. Someday it is going to change. You just don't know which effort will change it."