A new generation of anti-abortion activists pushes for laws that define personhood as beginning at conception.
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. Read more.