(WOMENSENEWS)–A court hearing on April 6 on a Nevada ballot initiative opens the latest front in a nationwide push to amend state constitutions and enact state laws declaring that life begins at conception.
The initiative, rejected as invalid by a Nevada district court judge in January, will now be heard by the Nevada Supreme Court on April 6.
The group Personhood Nevada wants the state Constitution to include the sentence: "In the great state of Nevada, the term ‘person’ applies to every human being."
On its Web site, Personhood Nevada, based in Las Vegas, elaborates on how the phrase would be interpreted: "This amendment codifies the inalienable right to life for everyone, young or old, healthy or ill, conscious or unconscious, born or unborn." In other words, it offers a coded protection of fetal rights, the legal tactic on the vanguard of anti-choice activism.
Earlier this year, Nevada District Judge Todd Russell ruled the wording of the proposed amendment was too vague for voters to understand its consequences and, contrary to state rules, dealt with more than one subject. In its appeal, Personhood Nevada contends specific references to abortion, fertilized eggs, embryos or fetus are not required.
Among others trying to stop the "personhood" push is the Washington, D.C.-based Republican Majority for Choice. The GOP group is working through social media and in coalitions with pro-choice allies to warn Republican voters and leaders about the far-reaching implications of state amendments.
They could block reproductive health care services, including birth control, in-vitro fertilization and stem cell research, Kellie Rose Ferguson, executive director of Republican Majority for Choice, told Women’s eNews in a recent telephone interview. "We could end up seeing cases where women who miscarried are investigated."
Cal Zastrow, co-founder of the year-and-a-half-old organization Personhood USA, said the group’s goal is to "get the culture and the states to recognize and protect the humanity of pre-born people."
Renewed Colorado Initiative
Personhood USA, based in Arvada, Colo., grew out of a failed attempt to pass a personhood amendment in Colorado in 2008. Colorado Secretary of State Bernie Buescher announced March 26 that the group had collected enough signatures to get another "personhood" amendment on the ballot this November.
Zastrow declined to discuss the specific ways in which personhood amendments would be applied and enforced. When asked about that he would only reiterate the group’s central maxim: that all laws that apply to newborns, infants or other people should also apply to "pre-borns."
When the life of a pregnant woman is endangered, a doctor must work to save both lives, otherwise it would constitute a criminal act, Zastrow said.
About 32 states have efforts underway to legally define fertilized eggs as people through constitutional amendments or changes to state laws.
In a recent e-mail to members, Republican Majority for Choice listed some of those campaigns: "Personhood USA’s multiple state chapters are continuing to push their dangerous and extremist agenda across (the) U.S.," the e-mail stated. In addition to Nevada, the e-mail tells members of 2010 ballot initiatives in Mississippi, Colorado, Florida, California, Montana and Missouri.
Personhood state organizers have also succeeded in getting bills before state assemblies in Kansas, Iowa, Virginia, Hawaii and Maryland.
Personhood USA’s Zastrow said the group’s goal is to pass legislation in all 50 states and a dozen foreign countries, including Mexico and Canada.
So far, no "personhood" legislation has been enacted.
Colorado voters defeated a 2008 "personhood" ballot initiative by 73 percent. A "personhood" bill made it through the state House in North Dakota but failed in the state Senate.
Many larger anti-abortion organizations have dismissed the personhood movement saying its approach will waste time and money without stopping abortions.
Zastrow, 49, a father of four who describes himself as "a Christian minister to pre-born children," said the Republican Party and the Catholic Church "have not been on board with personhood."
An independent voter, Zastrow said the Personhood movement has aspirations beyond overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal.
"That is a tertiary byproduct," he said.
Among other things, Zastrow wants "snowflake babies," which he describes as "children frozen in in-vitro fertilization clinics belonging to moms and dads who don’t want more kids," to be made available to couples who are unable to conceive on their own.
Amanda Mountjoy, chairwoman of the Colorado chapter of Republican Majority for Choice, described the personhood movement in that state as a "religious crusade."
Mountjoy also took her party to task for focusing on matters such as abortion that she said have nothing to do with Republican principles.
"I believe the Republican Party has been hijacked by a small group of people that are so focused on social issues and I would argue that the roots of the Republican Party were not geared for these social issues," she said.
‘No Respect for Voice of the People’
Despite the resounding rejection by the vast majority of voters in Colorado in 2008, essentially the same personhood proposal will reappear on the November 2010 ballot, Mountjoy said.
"The voters of Colorado have spoken in huge numbers and hugely defeated the (2008) amendment," she said. "There is no respect for the voice of the people if they are coming back in 2010. They do not respect almost 74 percent of the voters."
Mountjoy said she expects the pro-choice coalition formed in 2008, Protect Families Protect Choices, to reunite behind this renewed initiative. At its height the coalition had about 97 member organizations, including NARAL, Planned Parenthood, the Republican Majority for Choice, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and many others, she said.
Elisa Maser, president of the Nevada Advocates for Planned Parenthood Affiliates, said getting personhood into law in one state would trigger a challenge to Roe v. Wade. Maser agrees that the movement’s intent is far more sweeping.
"It’s all about eroding women’s rights and telling women what they can and can’t do with their health care," she said.
If Personhood Nevada wins in state Supreme Court, it would have to gather 97,200 voter signatures by June 15 to get its proposal on the ballot. It would then take a simple majority in two successive statewide elections to amend the state Constitution.
Susan Elan covered politics at daily newspapers in the New York metropolitan area for more than a decade. She is now working on a Master of Public Health degree at New York Medical College.
For more information:
Republican Majority for Choice
Nevada Advocates for Planned Parenthood Affiliates