Religious Leaders in Colorado Respond to the Egg-As-Person Amendment

Wendy Norris

In November, Colorado citizens will vote on an amendment declaring that life begins at conception. Rewire's Wendy Norris examines the moral precedent this amendment could set.

The question of when life begins is an incredibly complex one with
enormous legal and ethical ramifications for contraception, abortion,
in vitro fertilization, embryonic stem cell research and the very
definition of our humanity.

Colorado voters will decide this thorny question in November.

On Thursday, the Colorado Secretary of State confirmed that proponents
of a controversial measure to confer constitutional rights on
fertilized human eggs exceeded the number of valid petition signatures
required to place the question on the general election ballot.

The ballot question will read:

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Be it Enacted by the People of the State of Colorado:

SECTION 1. Article II of the constitution of the state of Colorado is

Section 31. Person defined. As used in sections 3, 6, and 25 of
Article II of the state constitution, the terms "person" or "persons"
shall include any human being from the moment of fertilization.

Before voters are inundated with months of campaigning, we put the
measure, now known as Proposed Amendment 48, to a very different test.

We asked a cross-section of religious scholars, clergy and spiritual
leaders – what moral precedent could this potential amendment set? – to
determine if there is uniformity on the theological definition of

Rev. Dr. Phil Campbell, a member of The Interfaith
Alliance of Colorado Board of Directors, United Church of Christ
minister and Director of Ministry Studies at the Iliff School of
Theology in Denver

The ethical obligation and theological worldview
that is dominant in most religious traditions is caring for persons on
this side of birth.

The moral imperative is to commit ourselves to the care of the born
rather than divert our attention to a category of life that is scantily
attested to historically in any religious tradition. The moral issue
this amendment raises is the shift away from the concern regarding the
enormity of need of the born and the common ground that could be found
among various religious traditions to address those needs.

I do not know of a religious community that would support this
amendment – the view that life begins at fertilization – and supports
its proposed goal in their own religious practice. For instance,
adherents to the idea that life begins at fertilization (or conception)
do not expect a fetus to be named. Nor do they support invitro
baptismal ceremonies, naming ceremonies, or conduct burials for a
miscarried fetus according to their religious tradition as they would
for a person who has died. I believe there is a disconnect between what
proponents of this measure proclaim and what they actually practice.
This is a moral concern, as well as an ethical concern.

An amendment is not needed for religious communities to treat fetuses as human beings.

Rabbi Joel R. Schwartzman, president of the Rocky Mountain Rabbinical Council

Coloradans seeking to place the proposition on
the ballot that life begins at the moment of fertilization must of
necessity claim to have God on their side because they are seeking to
play God through their efforts.

Naming conception as the starting point for life is not a purely
arbitrary act. A fertilized egg may reach term and be born. There is
much that can happen along the way, not involving abortion, that can
negate this possibility.

For perhaps this very reason Rabbinic Judaism held that life begins
only at birth. That is the law within Jewish life to this day. The
rabbis had every bit as much claim to God in their decision as these
anti-abortion forces have the right to attempt to bring a plebiscite in
this state to say otherwise.

Without the question of abortion rights, however, this clearly wouldn’t
be a ballot issue, and we could all interpret God’s word in and for our
own lives without submitting it to a popular vote.

Rev. Nathan Woodliff-Stanley, a member of The Interfaith
Alliance of Colorado Board of Directors and Chair of TIA-CO’s Public
Policy Commission. He is also Minister of Social Responsibility at
Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden

One moral precedent I think this initiative
would set is that it would devalue all aspects of human life and moral
choices beyond genetics.

Defining a fertilized egg as a person essentially says that nothing
else counts about what we may think of as the essence of personhood –
not consciousness, thoughts, feelings, autonomy, capacity to love and
form relationships, creative imagination, a unique life history and
experience, or anything else.

A fertilized egg has none of these qualitlies – the only thing it has
in common with a person is human DNA. So in essence, this initiative
says that human beings are nothing more than DNA – nothing else matters
for a definition of personhood. By consequence, the existence of human
DNA overrides all other moral considerations of personhood.

Pastor Brent Cunningham, Spiritual Formation, Timberline Church in Fort Collins

We support the full and inherent dignity of
human beings across the lifespan. This is wholly consonant with the
biblical worldview; one does not suddenly gain or acquire moral status
at some stage in development. Human dignity or moral worth is inherent
or intrinsic, and is not "assigned" by someone external to us when we
reach their arbitrarily defined "state" of
development/maturity/functional capacity.

Here is the danger. If moral status (dignity) is tied to an arbitrary
definition of "personhood" (usually having to do with specific
functional capacities), as opposed to simply being human, then we head
down a road where we can just as easily "take it away" (moral worth).

We should wonder at the moral precedent have we set by "creating" the
concept of a "Human non-person" (i.e., that one can be a member of the
human species but not yet a person with full moral worth). This rather
nonsensical (as well as dangerous) concept is the issue that this
amendment seeks to rectify. And it does so by articulating a concept
that has a long tradition in Western moral philosophy.

Jann Halloran, minister of the Prairie Unitarian
Universalist Church of Parker, maternity unit counselor and member of
the Colorado Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice

It feels like there is one religious perspective
but there’s not. It seems so monolithic to say that from the second an
egg is fertilized that this is now a person. And the woman that is
carrying that person is now enslaved to whatever happens next.

There is a lot of guilt with miscarriage. Every woman wonders, ‘What
did I do wrong?’ And now you’re saying it was a murder. It’s so cruel
and it’s so harsh.

To simply say that this is when life begins the second an egg is
fertilized is dancing on the head of a pin. None of us really knows and
we have to make the most complicated moral decisions we can make in the
best interest of our health, our families and the potential new life.

This issue is so rife with sexism. Religion and men telling women how
to live their lives, how to control their sexuality and how to control
their reproductive systems. They don’t give women the ethical agency
that we were born with to make these decisions.

It’s very scary. There are so many ramifications around birth control,
fertility and how women have to deal with these issues in their real

I don’t think there are grounds for this in the Christian or Jewish
tradition. Until a baby is born, you don’t know what you have. That
doesn’t mean that anything that happens before birth isn’t worthy of
tears or anger or celebration or fear. But until the incredible gift of
life is given and it comes out of the womb, that’s as reasonable and
moral a position of when life begins as when an egg is fertilized.

I also respect the passion of the religious right to hold very
different positions and that’s why I don’t want one particular position
in our constitution.

Rev. Patrick Hurley, president of the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado and retired pastor Presbyterian Church, Pueblo

The measure, proposed by Colorado for Equal
Rights, is a full-throttle attack on the religious and civil liberties
of all Coloradans.

We believe this measure would limit religious freedom by enshrining a
particular religious definition of life in the Colorado Constitution.
There is not a singular religious definition of life, despite what the
proponents of this measure would have Coloradans believe. This measure
is more than an attack on religious freedom, however. It is also a
serious threat to women’s health and women’s civil rights.

The Interfaith Alliance of Colorado believes the personhood amendment sets a dangerous moral precedent as well.

Our moral imperative is to commit ourselves to the care of the born.
This amendment shifts our attention away from the enormity of need of
poor and marginalized Coloradans and the common ground that could be
found among various religious traditions, political parties, and people
of goodwill across the state. We should create laws that promote the
common good and not narrow, extreme political and religious ideologies.

The Archdiocese of Denver, Islamic Center of Boulder and
Thubten Shedrup Ling/Buddhist Center did not return calls for comment.
No one was available to respond from the Assemblies of God Rocky
Mountain District Council, which recently endorsed the ballot measure.

Read part one of this continuing series – Origins of Personhood: Using ‘States Rights’ to Restrict Abortion and our ongoing reporting on the issue.

Commentary Human Rights

When It Comes to Zika and Abortion, Disabled People Are Too Often Used as a Rhetorical Device

s.e. smith

Anti-choicers shame parents facing a prenatal diagnosis and considering abortion, even though they don't back up their advocacy up with support. The pro-choice movement, on the other hand, often finds itself caught between defending abortion as an absolute personal right and suggesting that some lived potentials are worth more than others.

There’s only one reason anyone should ever get an abortion: Because that person is pregnant and does not want to be. As soon as anyone—whether they are pro- or anti-choice—starts bringing up qualifiers, exceptions, and scary monsters under the bed, things get problematic. They establish the seeds of a good abortion/bad abortion dichotomy, in which some abortions are deemed “worthier” than others.

And with the Zika virus reaching the United States and the stakes getting more tangible for many Americans, that arbitrary designation is on a lot of minds—especially where the possibility of developmentally impaired fetuses is concerned. As a result, people with disabilities are more often being used as a rhetorical device for or against abortion rights rather than viewed as actualized human beings.

Here’s what we know about Zika and pregnancy: The virus has been linked to microcephaly, hearing loss, impaired growth, vision problems, and some anomalies of brain development when a fetus is exposed during pregnancy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sometimes these anomalies are fatal, and patients miscarry their pregnancies. Sometimes they are not. Being infected with Zika is not a guarantee that a fetus will develop developmental impairments.

We need to know much, much more about Zika and pregnancy. At this stage, commonsense precautions when necessary like sleeping under a mosquito net, using insect repellant, and having protected sex to prevent Zika infection in pregnancy are reasonable, given the established link between Zika and developmental anomalies. But the panicked tenor of the conversation about Zika and pregnancy has become troubling.

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In Latin America, where Zika has rampantly spread in the last few years, extremely tough abortion restrictions often deprive patients of reproductive autonomy, to the point where many face the possibility of criminal charges for seeking abortion. Currently, requests for abortions are spiking. Some patients have turned to services like Women on Web, which provides assistance with accessing medical abortion services in nations where they are difficult or impossible to find.

For pro-choice advocates in the United States, the situation in Latin America is further evidence of the need to protect abortion access in our own country. Many have specifically using Zika to advocate against 20-week limits on abortion—which are already unconstitutional, and should be condemned as such. Less than 2 percent of abortions take place after 20 weeks, according to the Guttmacher Institute. The pro-choice community is often quick to defend these abortions, arguing that the vast majority take place in cases where the life of the patient is threatened, the fetus has anomalies incompatible with life, or the fetus has severe developmental impairments. Microcephaly, though rare, is an example of an impairment that isn’t diagnosable until late in the second trimester or early in the third, so when patients opt for termination, they run smack up against 20-week bans.

Thanks to the high profile of Zika in the news, fetal anomalies are becoming a talking point on both sides of the abortion divide: Hence the dire headlines sensationalizing the idea that politicians want to force patients to give birth to disabled children. The implication of leaning on these emotional angles, rather than ones based on the law or on human rights, is that Zika causes disabilities, and no one would want to have a disabled child. Some of this rhetoric is likely entirely subconscious, but it reflects internalized attitudes about disabled people, and it’s a dogwhistle to many in the disability community.

Anti-choicers, meanwhile, are leveraging that argument in the other direction, suggesting that patients with Zika will want to kill their precious babies because they aren’t perfect, and that therefore it’s necessary to clamp down on abortion restrictions to protect the “unborn.” Last weekend, for instance, failed presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) announced that he doesn’t support access to abortion for pregnant patients with the Zika virus who might, as a consequence, run the risk of having babies with microcephaly. Hardline anti-choicers, unsurprisingly, applauded him for taking a stand to protect life.

Both sides are using the wrong leverage in their arguments. An uptick in unmet abortion need is disturbing, yes—because it means that patients are not getting necessary health care. While it may be Zika exposing the issue of late, it’s a symptom, not the problem. Patients should be able to choose to get an abortion for whatever reason and at whatever time, and that right shouldn’t be defended with disingenuous arguments that use disability for cover. The issue with not being able to access abortions after 20 weeks, for example, isn’t that patients cannot access therapeutic abortions for fetuses with anomalies, but that patients cannot access abortions after 20 weeks.

The insistence from pro-choice advocates on justifying abortions after 20 weeks around specific, seemingly involuntary instances, suggests that so-called “late term abortions” need to be circumstantially defended, which retrenches abortion stigma. Few advocates seem to be willing to venture into the troubled waters of fighting for the right to abortions for any reason after 20 weeks. In part, that reflects an incremental approach to securing rights, but it may also betray some squeamishness. Patients don’t need to excuse their abortions, and the continual haste to do so by many pro-choice advocates makes it seem like a 20-week or later abortion is something wrong, something that might make patients feel ashamed depending on their reasons. There’s nothing shameful about needing abortion care after 20 weeks.

And, as it follows, nor is there ever a “bad” reason for termination. Conservatives are fond of using gruesome language targeted at patients who choose to abort for apparent fetal disability diagnoses in an attempt to shame them into believing that they are bad people for choosing to terminate their pregnancies. They use the specter of murdering disabled babies to advance not just social attitudes, but actual policy. Republican Gov. Mike Pence, for example, signed an Indiana law banning abortion on the basis of disability into law, though it was just blocked by a judge. Ohio considered a similar bill, while North Dakota tried to ban disability-related abortions only to be stymied in court. Other states require mandatory counseling when patients are diagnosed with fetal anomalies, with information about “perinatal hospice,” implying that patients have a moral responsibility to carry a pregnancy to term even if the fetus has impairments so significant that survival is questionable and that measures must be taken to “protect” fetuses against “hasty” abortions.

Conservative rhetoric tends to exceptionalize disability, with terms like “special needs child” and implications that disabled people are angelic, inspirational, and sometimes educational by nature of being disabled. A child with Down syndrome isn’t just a disabled child under this framework, for example, but a valuable lesson to the people around her. Terminating a pregnancy for disability is sometimes treated as even worse than terminating an apparently healthy pregnancy by those attempting to demonize abortion. This approach to abortion for disability uses disabled people as pawns to advance abortion restrictions, playing upon base emotions in the ultimate quest to make it functionally impossible to access abortion services. And conservatives can tar opponents of such laws with claims that they hate disabled people—even though many disabled people themselves oppose these patronizing policies, created to address a false epidemic of abortions for disability.

When those on either side of the abortion debate suggest that the default response to a given diagnosis is abortion, people living with that diagnosis hear that their lives are not valued. This argument implies that life with a disability is not worth living, and that it is a natural response for many to wish to terminate in cases of fetal anomalies. This rhetoric often collapses radically different diagnoses under the same roof; some impairments are lethal, others can pose significant challenges, and in other cases, people can enjoy excellent quality of life if they are provided with access to the services they need.

Many parents facing a prenatal diagnosis have never interacted with disabled people, don’t know very much about the disability in question, and are feeling overwhelmed. Anti-choicers want to force them to listen to lectures at the least and claim this is for everyone’s good, which is a gross violation of personal privacy, especially since they don’t back their advocacy up with support for disability programs that would make a comfortable, happy life with a complex impairment possible. The pro-choice movement, on the other hand, often finds itself caught between the imperative to defend abortion as an absolute personal right and suggesting that some lived potentials are worth more than others. It’s a disturbing line of argument to take, alienating people who might otherwise be very supportive of abortion rights.

It’s clearly tempting to use Zika as a political football in the abortion debate, and for conservatives, doing so is taking advantage of a well-established playbook. Pro-choicers, however, would do better to walk off the field, because defending abortion access on the sole grounds that a fetus might have a disability rings very familiar and uncomfortable alarm bells for many in the disability community.

Culture & Conversation Media

Filmmaker Tracy Droz Tragos Centers Abortion Stories in New Documentary

Renee Bracey Sherman

The film arrives at a time when personal stories are center stage in the national conversation about abortion, including in the most recent Supreme Court decision, and rightly so. The people who actually have and provide abortions should be driving the narrative, not misinformation and political rhetoric.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

A new film by producer and director Tracy Droz Tragos, Abortion: Stories Women Tell, profiles several Missouri residents who are forced to drive across the Mississippi River into Illinois for abortion care.

The 93-minute film features interviews with over 20 women who have had or are having abortions, most of whom are Missouri residents traveling to the Hope Clinic in Granite City, Illinois, which is located about 15 minutes from downtown St. Louis.

Like Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming, Missouri has only one abortion clinic in the entire state.

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The women share their experiences, painting a more nuanced picture that shows why one in three women of reproductive age often seek abortion care in the United States.

The film arrives at a time when personal stories are center stage in the national conversation about abortion, including in the most recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, and rightly so. The people who actually have and provide abortions should be driving the narrative, not misinformation and political rhetoric. But while I commend recent efforts by filmmakers like Droz Tragos and others to center abortion stories in their projects, these creators still have far to go when it comes to presenting a truly diverse cadre of storytellers if they really want to shift the conversation around abortion and break down reproductive stigma.

In the wake of Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion law, which was at the heart of the Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt Supreme Court case, Droz Tragos, a Missouri native, said in a press statement she felt compelled to document how her home state has been eroding access to reproductive health care. In total, Droz Tragos interviewed 81 people with a spectrum of experiences to show viewers a fuller picture of the barriersincluding legislation and stigmathat affect people seeking abortion care.

Similar to HBO documentaries about abortion that have come before it—including 12th & Delaware and Abortion: Desperate ChoicesAbortion: Stories Women Tell involves short interviews with women who are having and have had abortions, conversations with the staff of the Hope Clinic about why they do the work they do, interviews with local anti-choice organizers, and footage of anti-choice protesters shouting at patients, along with beautiful shots of the Midwest landscape and the Mississippi River as patients make road trips to appointments. There are scenes of clinic escorts holding their ground as anti-choice protesters yell Bible passages and obscenities at them. One older clinic escort carries a copy of Living in the Crosshairs as a protester follows her to her car, shouting. The escort later shares her abortion story.

One of the main storytellers, Amie, is a white 30-year-old divorced mother of two living in Boonville, Missouri. She travels over 100 miles each way to the Hope Clinic, and the film chronicles her experience in getting an abortion and follow-up care. Almost two-thirds of people seeking abortions, like Amie, are already a parent. Amie says that the economic challenges of raising her other children make continuing the pregnancy nearly impossible. She describes being physically unable to carry a baby and work her 70 to 90 hours a week. Like many of the storytellers in the film, Amie talks about the internalized stigma she’s feeling, the lack of support she has from loved ones, and the fear of family members finding out. She’s resilient and determined; a powerful voice.

The film also follows Kathy, an anti-choice activist from Bloomfield, Missouri, who says she was “almost aborted,” and that she found her calling in the anti-choice movement when she noticed “Anne” in the middle of the name “Planned Parenthood.” Anne is Kathy’s middle name.

“OK Lord, are you telling me that I need to get in the middle of this?” she recalls thinking.

The filmmakers interview the staff of the Hope Clinic, including Dr. Erin King, a pregnant abortion provider who moved from Chicago to Granite City to provide care and who deals with the all-too-common protesting of her home and workplace. They speak to Barb, a talkative nurse who had an abortion 40 years earlier because her nursing school wouldn’t have let her finish her degree while she was pregnant. And Chi Chi, a security guard at the Hope Clinic who is shown talking back to the protesters judging patients as they walk into the clinic, also shares her abortion story later in the film. These stories remind us that people who have abortions are on the frontlines of this work, fighting to defend access to care.

To address the full spectrum of pregnancy experiences, the film also features the stories of a few who, for various reasons, placed their children for adoption or continued to parent. While the filmmakers interview Alexis, a pregnant Black high school student whose mother died when she was 8 years old, classmates can be heard in the distance tormenting her, asking if she’s on the MTV reality show 16 and Pregnant. She’s visibly distraught and crying, illustrating the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” conundrum women of color experiencing unintended pregnancy often face.

Te’Aundra, another young Black woman, shares her story of becoming pregnant just as she received a college basketball scholarship. She was forced to turn down the scholarship and sought an adoption, but the adoption agency refused to help her since the child’s father wouldn’t agree to it. She says she would have had an abortion if she could start over again.

While anti-choice rhetoric has conflated adoption as the automatic abortion alternative, research has shown that most seeking adoption are personally debating between adoption and parenting. This is illustrated in Janet’s story, a woman with a drug addiction who was raising one child with her partner, but wasn’t able to raise a second, so she sought an adoption. These stories are examples of the many societal systems failing those who choose adoption or students raising families, in addition to those fighting barriers to abortion access.

At times, the film feels repetitive and disjointed, but the stories are powerful. The range of experiences and reasons for having an abortion (or seeking adoption) bring to life the data points too often ignored by politicians and the media: everything from economic instability and fetal health, to domestic violence and desire to finish an education. The majority of abortion stories featured were shared by those who already had children. Their stories had a recurring theme of loneliness and lack of support from their loved ones and friends at a time when they needed it. Research has shown that 66 percent of people who have abortions tend to only tell 1.24 people about their experience, leaving them keeping a secret for fear of judgment and shame.

While many cite financial issues when paying for abortions or as the reason for not continuing the pregnancy, the film doesn’t go in depth about how the patients come to pay for their abortions—which is something my employer, the National Network for Abortion Funds (NNAF), directly addresses—or the systemic issues that created their financial situations.

However, it brings to light the hypocrisy of our nation, where the invisible hand of our society’s lack of respect for pregnant people and working parents can force people to make pregnancy decisions based on economic situations rather than a desire to be pregnant or parent.

“I’m not just doing this for me” is a common phrase when citing having an abortion for existing or future children.

Overall, the film is moving simply because abortion stories are moving, especially for audiences who don’t have the opportunity to have someone share their abortion story with them personally. I have been sharing my abortion story for five years and hearing someone share their story with me always feels like a gift. I heard parts of my own story in those shared; however, I felt underrepresented in this film that took place partly in my home state of Illinois. While people of color are present in the film in different capacities, a racial analysis around the issues covered in the film is non-existent.

Race is a huge factor when it comes to access to contraception and reproductive health care; over 60 percent of people who have abortions are people of color. Yet, it took 40 minutes for a person of color to share an abortion story. It seemed that five people of color’s abortion stories were shown out of the over 20 stories, but without actual demographic data, I cannot confirm how all the film’s storytellers identify racially. (HBO was not able to provide the demographic data of the storytellers featured in the film by press time.)

It’s true that racism mixed with sexism and abortion stigma make it more difficult for people of color to speak openly about their abortion stories, but continued lack of visual representation perpetuates that cycle. At a time when abortion storytellers themselves, like those of NNAF’s We Testify program, are trying to make more visible a multitude of identities based on race, sexuality, immigration status, ability, and economic status, it’s difficult to give a ringing endorsement of a film that minimizes our stories and relegates us to the second half of a film, or in the cases of some of these identities, nowhere at all. When will we become the central characters that reality and data show that we are?

In July, at the progressive conference Netroots Nation, the film was screened followed by an all-white panel discussion. I remember feeling frustrated at the time, both because of the lack of people of color on the panel and because I had planned on seeing the film before learning about a march led by activists from Hands Up United and the Organization for Black Struggle. There was a moment in which I felt like I had to choose between my Blackness and my abortion experience. I chose my Black womanhood and marched with local activists, who under the Black Lives Matter banner have centered intersectionality. My hope is that soon I won’t have to make these decisions in the fight for abortion rights; a fight where people of color are the backbone whether we’re featured prominently in films or not.

The film highlights the violent rhetoric anti-choice protesters use to demean those seeking abortions, but doesn’t dissect the deeply racist and abhorrent comments, often hurled at patients of color by older white protesters. These racist and sexist comments are what fuel much of the stigma that allows discriminatory laws, such as those banning so-called race- and sex-selective abortions, to flourish.

As I finished the documentary, I remembered a quote Chelsea, a white Christian woman who chose an abortion when her baby’s skull stopped developing above the eyes, said: “Knowing you’re not alone is the most important thing.”

In her case, her pastor supported her and her husband’s decision and prayed over them at the church. She seemed at peace with her decision to seek abortion because she had the support system she desired. Perhaps upon seeing the film, some will realize that all pregnancy decisions can be quite isolating and lonely, and we should show each other a bit more compassion when making them.

My hope is that the film reaches others who’ve had abortions and reminds them that they aren’t alone, whether they see themselves truly represented or not. That we who choose abortion are normal, loved, and supported. And that’s the main point of the film, isn’t it?

Abortion: Stories Women Tell is available in theaters in select cities and will be available on HBO in 2017.


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