Jun 5, 2011 11:22 AM by Chris Welty
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Eager to prove their pro-life
credentials in the increasingly Republican South, conservative
lawmakers are pushing to define a fetus as a person from the moment
of conception and spur a direct challenge to the U.S. Supreme
Court's landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion decision.
By defining "person hood," legislatures in Louisiana and
Alabama are effectively considering whether to ban abortion, even
in rape or incest cases. In Mississippi, a person hood amendment to
the state Constitution will appear on the November ballot.
A national group plans to launch ballot initiatives for some
Western and Midwestern states in coming weeks.
Lawmakers who support person hood acknowledge their bills would
violate federal law. But that's the point.
"By simply passing this bill, the lawsuits will come," said
Rep. John LaBruzzo, a Republican from Metairie, La.
The concept faces hurdles in law and public opinion.
Bills to define person hood don't even always have the support of
mainstream abortion opponents, such as the Roman Catholic Church.
Since Roe v. Wade, some states have enacted incremental
restrictions, such as requirements for pre-abortion counseling, a
waiting period before receiving the abortion or parental consent.
They have not been able to halt abortion, though a study
published in the June issue of the journal Obstetrics and
Gynecology found the abortion rate declined by 8 percent between
2000 and 2008. Still, an estimated 30 percent of U.S. women have an
abortion by age 45, the study found.
"Nothing was going to ever change as long as we continued with
what primarily has been a failed strategy," Rebecca Kiessling, a
pro-life lawyer from Michigan, told Louisiana lawmakers in May. She
said states must outlaw abortion entirely - in a direct challenge
to Roe v. Wade - in order to make a real difference.
The Supreme Court ruled that if a fetus were considered a
person, the woman's right to an abortion would "collapse." But
the court also analyzed state laws and religious views, finding no
consensus on when life begins. So the Person hood Movement wants to
put states on record as saying life begins at fertilization.
The Louisiana bill would define an "unborn child" as "the
unborn offspring of human beings from the moment of fertilization
until birth," and would make abortion a crime.
If enacted, the bill would face an immediate challenge in the
"You cannot institute a definition of life for everyone, and
that's what these bills are trying to do," said Jordan Goldberg,
the state advocacy counsel for the Center for Reproductive Rights.
She called it "blatantly unconstitutional."
In Alabama, meanwhile, a person hood bill is on the verge of
passing both houses of the Legislature.
Sen. Phil Williams, a Republican from Rainbow City, introduced
the bill to expand the definition of a "person" to include "any
human being from the moment of fertilization and implantation in to
the womb." Legal experts - opponents and supporters of abortion
rights - say this would ban abortion, even without language
criminalizing the procedure.
The bill passed the Senate, 27-3, and was approved unanimously
last week by the House health committee.
With both the Alabama and Louisiana bills on the move,
supporters are encouraged.
Person hood USA, a Colorado-based group co-founded by Keith Mason
and Cal Zastrow, worked with LaBruzzo to shape the Louisiana
legislation. The umbrella group and its state affiliates, including
Person hood Mississippi, lead ballot initiatives across the country.
Person hood Alabama is a joint project of Person hood USA and the
Foundation for Moral law, which was established by former Alabama
Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore - a circuit judge who posted
the Ten Commandments on a monument in his courtroom. He was
ultimately removed from office for refusing to remove the monument.
Person hood USA, the American Life League and the Foundation for
Moral Law support a constitutional person hood protection at the
state and federal levels for developing fetuses and embryos.
But other abortion opponents are divided.
Both Alabama and Louisiana have Republican, anti-abortion
governors, but neither has come out in support of the bills.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said he wants to resolve the
"technical problems" that certain abortion opponents have with
the person hood bill in his state. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley did
not respond to a request for comment on the bill.
Meanwhile, Catholic Archbishop Thomas Rodi of Mobile, Ala., and
Bishop Robert Baker of Birmingham, Ala., strongly support Williams'
bill. But the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops has declined
to take a position on LaBruzzo's.
Officials with Catholics for Choice, which supports abortion
rights, says Catholic doctrine does not say that life begins at
conception, which is why person hood bills can't always count on the
support of church officials.
David Nolan, a spokesman for Catholics for Choice, wrote in an
e-mail that some see the person hood bills as less constructive than
incremental anti-abortion steps, because they are more politically
controversial and likely to be challenged in court.
But Ben DuPre, who works for both Person hood Alabama and the
Foundation for Moral Law, said that abortion opponents have allowed
themselves to be dissuaded by minor technical issues.
"We all want to protect all life, and so I think that I would
invite all pro-life groups to get behind the Person hood Movement,"
Person hood USA co-founder Keith Mason said supporters would
prefer a state constitutional amendment, like the one proposed in
Mississippi, over legislation. An amendment would be less
vulnerable to a legal challenge, he says, and would put the concept
of person hood directly in front of the people.
"We're identifying the people that are the most hardcore
pro-life in the country, and we're activating them," said Mason.
He said the group will soon have petition drives in all 28
states that allow voter referendums. They'll launch such efforts in
North Dakota, Ohio and Montana in coming weeks.
In Colorado, a person hood amendment has made it to the ballot
twice and been rejected by voters.
But that defeat isn't permanent, say abortion rights supporters.
Marjorie Signer is a spokeswoman for the Religious Coalition for
Reproductive Choice. She says Colorado voters will likely see the
issue on their ballots again, since the state requires fewer
signatures than other states.
"It's important in a way that it lost overwhelmingly both times
that it was on, but it's not conclusive," Signer said.
A Mississippi ballot initiative scheduled for a vote in November
is polling well, Mason said, but Person hood Mississippi is still
struggling to keep it on the ballot.
Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union
challenged the referendum in state court. They argued that
redefining a person would modify and add to the state Bill of
Rights, in violation of the state constitution, but the circuit
court ruled that the plaintiffs hadn't met their legal burden. They
appealed to the state Supreme Court, which will hear arguments June
The Person hood Movement has lost similar court battles in
Nevada, Missouri and Alaska. Mason says Planned Parenthood and the
ACLU have challenged the referendum in every state where signature
drives have succeeded.
"They've really been a stumbling block for the direct democracy
process, and I think that's the same thing that's happening in
Mississippi," he said.
But the person hood strategy also stumbles over disagreement
about when life begins.
Person hood bills have failed to pass several legislatures this
year, including Virginia and North Dakota. And a May 23 Gallup poll
found that only 51 percent of Americans believe that abortion is
"morally wrong," and less than half of the country identifies
itself as "pro-life."
Mason shrugs off these divisions. He and other person hood
supporters say that their view, however uncommonly held, represents
"To be human is enough, and that's what we're pointing out is
person hood," he said.