BISMARCK, N.D. (BP)–The defeat of a personhood initiative in Colorado last November did little to stop what is becoming a nationwide movement, with seven states considering bills or initiatives that would provide legal protection to all persons from the moment of conception.
The bills and initiatives are unique in that none of them reference abortion, even though all of them take aim at the legal reasoning behind the infamous Roe v. Wade ruling.
The latest victory for the movement came Feb. 17 in North Dakota, where the state House passed a bill, 51-41, that says for the purposes of interpreting state law, “a human being includes any organism with the genome of homo sapiens.” No state legislature had ever passed a personhood bill. Montana’s Senate Judiciary Committee considered Feb. 19 a bill that says a person is “a human being at all stages of human development of life, including the state of fertilization or conception.”
Pro-lifers in Mississippi — one of the nation’s most pro-life states — are expected to begin a personhood petition drive soon. A drive already has begun in Oregon.
Legislators in Maryland, Alabama and South Carolina also are sponsoring personhood bills.
The new movement comes months after Colorado Amendment 48, which would have defined a person as “any human being from the moment of conception,” failed at the ballot, 73-27 percent. It was the first time in the nation’s history that voters considered a personhood law.
Keith Mason, who helped lead the pro-Amendment 48 campaign, said it was a bad year for a pro-life initiative to be on the Colorado ballot, particularly with a Democratic tide sweeping through a somewhat left-leaning state. He notes that the amendment received nearly 600,000 votes, and two years earlier, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter was elected with 780,000 votes. Amendment 48’s margin of loss, he says, was an anomaly.
The Colorado initiative was the idea of 21-year-old Kristi Burton, who became the face of a campaign that garnered 103,000 valid signatures to place it on the ballot, significantly more than the 76,000 that were required.
“I’m not discouraged in the least about the vote and how it came down here,” Mason said. “We didn’t win on the ballot in November, but even though we didn’t win, it worked. Putting the vision in people’s heart to restore personhood rights to the preborn is what I believe the direction the pro-life movement has to go to actually see an end to abortion.”
The day after the election, Mason and fellow pro-lifer Cal Zastrow helped launch Personhood USA, an organization that seeks to promote pro-life bills and initiatives nationwide.
Ironically, the legal reasoning behind Roe is what helped launch the movement. When U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun authored the Roe majority opinion, he acknowledged that if the definition of “personhood is established” to include the unborn, then the case for abortion rights “collapses” because the unborn’s “right to life would then be guaranteed” by the Constitution.
Pro-lifers also note that science has advanced significantly since Roe was handed down — to the point that in 2007 a baby born in Florida just prior to 22 weeks survived. Yet even though babies born late in the second trimester have lived, abortion up until the day of birth, for any reason, remains legal.
“Establishing personhood closes what we call the hole in Roe vs. Wade,” Mason said.
The North Dakota bill now goes to the Senate, and if it passes there would have to be signed by Gov. John Hoeven, a Republican who hasn’t taken a public position on the bill. Mason believes Hoeven would sign it. If the bill doesn’t become law, North Dakota pro-lifers could start a petition drive to place a personhood initiative on the ballot.
The North Dakota bill (HR 1572), sponsored by Rep. Dan Ruby, is being labeled an anti-abortion bill, but Mason says the issue “goes far beyond” abortion.
“The fundamental problem we have in America is that we don’t treat all humans as though they’re people,” he said. “The simple mission of what we’re trying to do in the personhood movement is basically say that all humans are people. That’s it. Once we do that, we’ll begin to see human dignity restored to these pre-born children.”
According to Personhood USA, the following state legislators are sponsoring personhood bills: Maryland Del. Don Dwyer (HB 925), Montana Sen. Daniel W McGee (SB 406), South Carolina Rep. Liston Barfield (H. 3526) and Alabama Sen. Hank Erwin (SB-335).
Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press. For more information about the personhood movement, visit PersonhoodUSA.com.