One of the most controversial wings of the pro-life movement is the “personhood” effort. Championed by Personhood USA out of Colorado, its goal is to have personhood defined in law to include the unborn. Theoretically, it sounds good. Practically, it will never work and meanwhile is severely hurting the pro-life movement.
The pro-life movement does not support the personhood effort. Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum issued this statement about it, “Nearly every reputable pro-life leader has criticized the approach of the personhood amendment, which will simply give more power to pro-abortion judges.” Another statement from Eagle Forum said that the “poorly designed initiative would not prevent a single abortion even it if became law” and it hurts pro-life candidates.
National Right to Life, the leading pro-life organization in the country, does not support personhood. NRL General Counsel James Bopp issued a memo in 2007 explaining why the pro-life movement should avoid it. Since the personhood amendment is so radical, it drives out more people to vote against it, who then vote against conservative pro-life candidates also on the ballot. Eagle Forum noted that a personhood ballot intiative lost twice by a nearly 3-to-1 margin in Colorado, taking down pro-life candidates Bob Schaffer and Marilyn Musgrave as collateral damage. Exacerbating the negativity associated with personhood amendments is the media's hyping that the amendments will ban everything from in-vitro fertilization to birth control to contraception. Some of this hype is exaggerated, since not all versions of personhood legislation would affect these.
58% of voters in Mississippi, considered the most pro-life state in the country, rejected a personhood amendment last year. Personhood legislation in Oklahoma was struck down as unconstitutional by the Oklahoma Supreme Court last month, thwarting the efforts of Personhood USA which spent significant amounts of money in Oklahoma trying to get a personhood law passed, paying for media spots and 200,000 robocalls. Personhood efforts have also failed in Louisiana, South Carolina, and Virginia.
Steven Ertelt, one of the most well-known and respected leaders in the national pro-life movement and the editor of Lifenews.com, observed that the Supreme Court has already ruled repeatedly that personhood language cannot be used to end abortions. “It is time for the pro-life movement to put aside these (personhood) amendments and focus on the task at hand: ending abortion and protecting unborn children under law.” Paul Benjamin Linton, who has served as General Counsel for Americans United for Life, explained in a letter to the North Dakota Senate that passing personhood legislation will not overturn Roe v. Wade, and if Roe v. Wade does get overturned, there is already legislation ready to go into effect in North Dakota.
Florida's Catholic bishops are so opposed to the personhood movement they have banned the collecting of signatures for the initiative at churches. A coalition of pro-life organizations in Nevada issued a statement denouncing a personhood initiative in Nevada earlier this year, saying in part, “This amendment will harm the Pro-Life movement by giving pro-abortion courts more power to decide all matters relating to abortion, such as parental notification, informed consent, and taxpayer funding of abortion...We also believe that initiatives like these provide political and financial windfalls to abortion advocates and their candidates.”
The tactics being used by those in the personhood movement are ruthless; the “end justifies the means” actions usually championed by the left. North Dakota State Senators Gerry Uglem (R) and Curtis Olafson (R) understood that personhood legislation is a strategy doomed to failure. In 2009 and 2011, both Senators opposed a personhood bill on the basis that it would harm, not help, the pro-life effort to prevent abortion. After responding to a survey sent to them by a rogue local chapter of National Right to Life, their answers were changed when the survey results were reported to the public, falsely portraying them as pro-abortion. The individual responsible for the dishonest survey joined with his father and together they contributed $6,000 to Olafson's opponent, an unheard of amount for one family to contribute to a North Dakota Senate race, particularly a primary race. Personhood USA contributed $1,000 to his opponent.
Campaign mailers were sent to Olafson's district accusing him of being pro-abortion and stating that abortion would be illegal in North Dakota today if not for him. This foolish statement shows a complete lack of understanding that personhood legislation would be immediately challenged in court, would never become law and would indisputably be struck down as unconstitutional. Furthermore, the ND Senate voted 28-19 in favor of the motion to table the bill. Nothing can be done in a legislative body unless you have the votes to do it. Senator Olafson had the support of the majority of the ND Senate to defeat the bill.
Senators Uglem and Olafson both voted in favor of a “trigger ban” anti-abortion bill in 2007, which would ban abortion in North Dakota the moment Roe v. Wade is overturned. Nevertheless, Personhood USA successfully targeted Olafson this year when he ran for reelection, causing him to lose his primary race to a personhood proponent. The organization issued a press release gloating over the defeat, using it to threaten other sitting pro-life legislators around the country. Their message is clear, “You better do what we want, or we will come after you.” The vicious last minute attack mailer that was sent out in Olafson's district was also mailed to the entire ND Legislature in a direct and brazen attempt to threaten and intimidate the entire ND Legislature. Is this what we, the citizens want? Our legislatures making decisions based on which radical group is most effective in threatening and intimidating our legislators?
The local pro-life organization in Olafson's district, Walsh County Right to Life, is led by an individual who is one of North Dakota's leading proponents of personhood, despite the fact that National Right to Life does not support personhood legislation. If the national pro-life organizations do not support personhood, what do a handful of rogue state and local chapters know that the national associations don't?
Since these efforts will only result in defeating conservative pro-life candidates, and there is a proven history of defeating pro-life candidates with this approach, concerns have arisen that the left is secretly funneling money to these organizations. Their campaign finance reports are vague and contain very little information. The director of Personhood Oklahoma is the treasurer and custodian of records for Pro-Life Super PAC in Oklahoma. Pro-Life Super PAC didn't bother filing its last quarterly report. One report reveals that it has spent over a million dollars going after Mitt Romney, including creating a TV ad attacking him. Instead of attacking pro-choice Obama, this personhood PAC is spending money attacking the Republican nominee for president. Most of the rest of the Republican presidential candidates were coerced into declaring they support personhood amendments, afraid of being depicted as not pro-life.
The false portrayal of anyone who opposes personhood as pro-abortion must stop. Pro-lifers may reasonably differ over how to reduce abortions in this country. Dishonestly calling someone pro-abortion because they take a practical approach instead of an emotional knee-jerk approach that has proven to be a failure is reprehensible. NRL's Bopp describes it best, “One unfortunate aspect of this internal debate is the inclination of some absolutist individuals and groups to spiritualize the debate over the best strategy for long-term protection of the unborn by calling on leaders who take an incremental approach to repent for their alleged deception of the public and abandonment of the unborn.”
The personhood movement is not attacking pro-abortion candidates, it is attacking pro-life candidates. Why are personhood proponents so eager to champion this issue that has proven to harm the pro-life movement? The only tried and true way to reduce abortions is to chip away at abortion laws in incremental steps. Attempting to overthrow all abortion laws at once only results in motivating abortion defenders to fight back harder.
Supporting personhood amendments falls right into the left's trap, and some believe it may ultimately be coming from the left. It would not be the first time the left funded a fake pro-life group in order to defeat legitimate pro-life candidates. It is time for the personhood movement to come clean and disclose whether they are being funded by the left, to quell the doubt and mounting suspicion.Disclaimer: The author previously served on the board of Arizona Right to Life for five years.