Personhood battles continue in new year with Republican legislatures
Thursday, December 30, 2010 at 11:46 am
A favorable enthusiasm gap heading into the 2010 midterm elections signaled a marquee year for Republicans and conservative interest groups across the country. That gap came by way of liberals disappointed by congressional inaction and conservatives revitalized by the tea party movement. On November 3, conservatives woke up to success everywhere: historic gains in the U.S. House, a significant dent in the Democrats’ majority in the U.S. Senate and many Republican-controlled state legislatures and governors’ mansions across the country.
But one side of the conservative coalition received disappointing results: anti-choice advocates. For example, in advance of the midterms, conservative organizations had invested in Colorado as the national battleground for the fight over choice with Amendment 62, or the Personhood amendment.
Personhood is a term that conservative groups have taken to using, arguing that life needs to be defined, essentially, at the most original point possible, starting with the zygote and calling it a person. The restrictions of such amendments like Colorado’s have major implications on a woman’s legal right to choose: If personhood were codified into law, not only would all forms of abortion become illegal, but stem cell research would be banned and women would no longer have access to certain forms of birth control. However, any personhood law would likely be immediately subject to judicial review; though the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed for restrictions on various forms of abortions, a complete ban on all abortions goes far beyond any current legal precedent.
National organization Personhood USA and other conservatives focused on Colorado as “ground zero” for pushing the issue in 2010. Amendment 62 was on the ballot for voters to decide whether to implement personhood measures. According to records with the Colorado Secretary of State’s office, Personhood USA’s state branch spent over $72,000 in expenditures during the campaign cycle. The American Independent’s sister site The Colorado Independent reported during the campaign:
[Personhood Colorado Director Gualberto Garcia] Jones agreed that Colorado is a battleground state, but he said that’s true of a host of issues, including personhood. He pointed to a blend of “East Coast liberal values” and “Mid-West family values” found in the state as the cause and added that the campaign has learned lessons from Colorado it will carry on to other states.
Jones, who is also part of the leadership of Personhood USA, said the Colorado initiative has taught them that the key to a successful campaign is grassroots organizing.
“There is that idea of trickle-down economics; well, I think that this is like trickle up politics,” Jones said. “When you are formidable, politicians will come on board. Some will peel away, but most of them realize that their base is our people.”
Yet the measure failed resoundingly. Voters rejected the measure by an overwhelming 73-27 percent margin. In Denver, the amendment received only slightly more support than a measure to institute a commission exploring extraterrestrial life.
Fight for personhood starts anew in different states
However, the overwhelming defeat of the personhood amendment in Colorado has not deterred proponents from pursuing similar strategies in other states. According to Personhood USA, action on personhood legislation is occurring in 30 states.
Florida may be the prime location for upcoming battles over personhood. Republicans made major gains during the 2010 midterms, sweeping many elections across the state. Personhood Florida is currently beginning efforts to get a measure similar to the Colorado amendment on the ballot in 2012.
In order for a constitutional amendment to get on the ballot in Florida, the group must collect over 676,000 signatures. Personhood Florida had collected zero signatures as of earlier this month, but the organization is gearing up for a major push to raise the issue early in 2011.
“We’re planning our big push for January. … We hope that pastors will have a pro-life sermon … and include information about the Personhood Amendment and give attendants a chance to sign the petition,” Pastor Bryan Longworth said in an interview with The Florida Independent.
The group is now talking beyond the base-level of signatures required. “We are seeking 1 million signatures, because we realize that some will likely be discounted. And we need 3.5 million people to vote on it, for it to pass. We aren’t backing down from the requirements and I appreciate the difficulty of the task ahead,” Longworth said.
Even if the group fails to gain the required number of signatures, they could approach Republicans in the state legislature to bypass the signature process to get the amendment on the ballot.
“That is definitely one route we could take, but at this point aren’t looking to go in that direction. We are, however, asking legislators to sponsor a Personhood Act, which wouldn’t carry the same weight as an amendment, but would be helpful nonetheless,” Longworth told The Florida Independent.
And that route may be more difficult than one may expect from a newly empowered Republican legislature, as even staunch anti-choice members have questioned the validity of pushing the personhood concept rather than working toward more gradual restrictions on abortion.
Battles beyond personhood
Of course, not all debates in the states over choice will revolve around measures as extreme as personhood. With a wide swath of state legislatures in the GOP’s control beginning in January, Republicans across the country will have a new opportunity to subtly create laws restricting access to abortion.
At TAI’s sister site The Minnesota Independent, Andy Birkey reported on concerns from Minnesota pro-choice organizations. Republicans took over both the Minnesota House and Senate after previous Democratic majorities. Personhood is likely too conservative for Minnesota’s more socially-liberal citizenry, but that doesn’t comfort pro-choice groups in the state.
“They have so many things in their arsenal to use — starting with an outright ban on certain types of abortion procedures (saline abortions have been a favorite target in the past) to banning abortion insurance coverage in the still- to-be-developed health care exchanges, to preventing any state funding to go to organizations that provide, refer or support abortions, to overturning the Doe v. Gomez case, which provides funding for abortions for women on Medicaid,” Linnea House of NARAL Pro-Choice Minnesota told Birkey.
At the same time, as Republicans took both sides of Minnesota’s legislature, the governor’s mansion flipped from Republican to Democrat, with Gov.-elect Mark Dayton a supporter of a woman’s right to choose. Nevertheless, GOPers still have other opportunities to restrict abortion access, such as a constitutional amendment, which would require a popular vote.
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