“Personhood” the Priority at American Life League’s Training Conference

Rachel Larris

American Life League gears up for a new round of amendments at their Personhood Now training conference. But will calling fertilized eggs "little children" help them chip away at abortion rights?

With the statewide campaigns to enact constitutional
“personhood” amendments the pro-life movement might be ready to abandon all
their previous narratives about faux-concern for women. The pro-life movement
clearly thinks they have hit on a winning narrative to convince the public to
ban abortion, and also birth control, by enacting state constitutional
amendments that grant full legal standing to hours-old fertilized eggs.

That was the message yesterday at the Washington Court hotel
during the American Life League’s Personhood Now training conference. Speaker
after speaker lined up to make their case about the evils of abortion and the
“necessity” of enacting 50 state constitutional amendments defining personhood
as beginning at fertilization, much like campaign that failed in Colorado in

Shaun Kenney, the executive director of the American Life
League said that personhood campaigns “reposition” the abortion discussion as a
means to move debate away from women’s rights to the rights of the embryos.

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“For the last 37 years the pro-life movement has been
focused on Roe v. Wade,” Kenney said opening up the conference. “We’ve been
hammering away at the right to privacy. And what you get at the end of the day
is not that much.”

Instead of discussing the right to privacy, Kenney said that
the personhood campaigns assert the right to exist, which fundamentally is a
more sympathetic campaign for public debate. “This takes the discussion out of
the courthouse and back into the court of public opinion,” he explained.

While no personhood amendment has been passed yet, the
American Life League seems confident that this U.S. Supreme Court would affirm
its constitutionality if passed. Robert Muise, a lawyer with the Thomas More
Law Center, a conservative public interest law firm “dedicated to the defense
and promotion of the religious freedom of Christians, " said that Justice Anthony
Kennedy was likely “with” them despite his vote in seminal case Planned Parenthood of Southeastern
Pennsylvania v. Casey
in 1992.

“His wife is pro-life and I’ve heard anecdotally that after Casey he spent some time on the couch,”
Muise said.

Both Kenney and Muise said that the “incremental” approach
to banning abortion, in the forms of enacting parental notification laws,
ultrasound requirements and the partial-birth abortion ban weren’t getting them
close enough to their goal of an outright ban. In fact Muise said that the
partial-birth abortion ban was mostly a symbolic move, rather than an effective
means at banning abortion.

“I’ve yet to see one conviction on the partial-birth
abortion ban,” Muise said. Instead Muise said it’s time to focus on real goal,
not just ending late-term or second-term abortion but all abortions.

A PowerPoint slide of Muise’s read:

Nearly 90 percent of all abortions
occur in the first 12 weeks, this is “key terrain.”

Left out of all the talk about banning abortion, there was
no discussion about what the passage of such a constitutional amendment would
actually mean to real live women.
There was lots of talk about fertilized eggs being “little children” but where
did these “little children” exist? Oh that’s right, in the body of the very
“person” the speakers weren’t even mentioning.

While all the rhetoric was dedicated towards “saving babies”
the concept of women’s personhood and autonomy was barely discussed or worse,
reduced women to body parts themselves. American Life League president Judie
Brown, in a taped message because she was in California, said there was no
justice for those living in Petri dishes or in their “mother’s fallopian
tubes.” We have to stop dehumanizing people “simply because of where they
live,” Brown said. So now embryos and fetuses just simply happen to live in
women’s bodies, as if it was merely a low-cost option for them rather than a nice

Muise was one of the few speakers to even brush up against
the idea of women’s autonomy. However he only mentioned women to claim that
there was no need for any exception for abortion for the life of the mother
because “in difficult pregnancies” physicians would work hard to save both
lives, and in cases where “one of them may not make it” the situation would
just be as it was in pre-Roe 1973, when doctors didn’t routinely let women die
in childbirth either. The idea that women’s health could be permanently
sacrificed for a pregnancy or that determination of how much risk for
continuing a pregnancy would be something a woman would want to decide for
herself, was not discussed by Muise.

Several African-American speakers also talked about “black
genocide.” There was discussion of campaigns of sterilization of “undesirables”
and goal in the post-Civil War era to keep African American populations from
growing. But none of the speakers mentioned that it is African American women
themselves who might wish to control their own reproductive schedule. African
American women’s autonomy was simply erased from the picture the speakers

Also not discussed, what would a personhood amendment mean
for contraception?

If such a personhood amendment passed then legally, all
hormonal contraception could potentially become outlawed. However “banning
birth control” was not a topic discussed by any speaker, except for Rev. Johnny
Hunter, who briefly said that birth control causes breast cancer, before also
mentioning that abortion does as well, a much touted but unproven claim.

While the speakers at the American Life League’s training
conference didn’t discuss “banning birth control” for activists, their table of
free pamphlets was all over that topic. With titles such as Answers to Your Questions different
pamphlets discussed Depo-Provera, NuvaRing, and Implanon.

What the pamphlets all shared in common was the idea that
hormonal contraception was the same as abortion.

In the “How does it work” section for Depo-Provera for
example, the pamphlet produced by the American Life League says:

It can thin the lining of the
uterus so that if the first two actions [preventing ovulation or preventing
sperm from reaching the ovum] fail and a new human being is created, the tiny
baby boy or girl will die before he or she can actually attach to the lining of
the uterus.

The same pamphlet warns:

Warning you may be told that
Depo-Provera cannot cause abortion, but that statement is based on the
incorrect notion that pregnancy begins when the baby implants in the lining of
the womb. This is dishonest and scientifically false. Don’t be misled.

The warning is repeated in all the pamphlets with the name
merely changed for each type of hormonal contraception.

Would the general public vote for a personhood amendment
that would outlaw not only abortion but also all hormonal birth control?
Probably not, but the pro-life movement is taking pains not to mention that

Still the pro-life movement thinks they have hit on a
winning idea. Keith Mason, cofounder of Personhood USA, a national organization
dedicated to enacting statewide personhood amends says, “We’re not in all 50
states yet, but we soon will be.”

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