‘Egg-as-Person’ Efforts Notch Another Loss

Wendy Norris

Ultra-conservative religious activists have suffered another set back in their quest to legally define a fertilized egg as a person.

Ultra-conservative religious activists have suffered another set back in their quest to legally define a fertilized egg as a person.

Personhood Nevada blasted the state Supreme Court for failing to rule ahead of a June 18 petition filing deadline on its appeal to place the conception ballot question before voters. In a stinging press release the absolutist anti-choice group referred to the justices as “tyrants.” The court fired back asking proponents why it should rule on a now moot point that failed to qualify for the ballot.

Local backers have been flummoxed since a legal challenge was mounted by the ACLU of Nevada and Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Opponents argue that enacting zygote civil rights would ban abortion under any circumstances and place strict limits on all but barrier forms of contraception, stem cell research and in-vitro fertilization.

Carson City District Court Judge James T. Russell ruled Jan. 8 that the proposed 14-word language was too vague and lacked the required focus on a single subject.

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Proponents vow they’ll be back in 2012.

But political watchers question the right-wing campaign strategy of not preemptively circulating petitions while the case was under appeal in order to meet the fast approaching ballot deadline.

It’s those missteps and others that cast doubt on the group’s political chops as it claims to be rallying support in 40 states.

The relative ease of citizen-backed ballot thresholds in Western states make the region an easy target for a whole host of activist-inspired electoral shenanigans.

Voters in Colorado rejected the first-in-the-nation personhood ballot by a 3-to-1 margin in 2008. A second attempt to make the 2010 ballot survived only following a mad dash to collect additional petition signatures after state electoral workers invalidated thousands of duplicate names and those contained on incorrectly notarized petitions. Voters will get a second crack Nov. 2 at defining a person as at “the beginning of biological development,” otherwise known as conception.

In Montana, activists are also launching a second attempt to make the ballot after securing only half the 49,000 signatures needed in a failed 2008 campaign.

Personhood Montana is once again led by Dr. Annie Bukacek, a Kalispell physician and  conservative political lightning rod. While organizing the latest petition circulation effort, Bukacek has also battled Medicaid fraud charges following allegations she billed the government for praying with patients during examinations.

The Montana secretary of state is currently tallying ballot petitions. A preliminary signature count, updated daily on the state’s official election web site, is slowly trickling in. Final figures are expected within the next two weeks.

Arch-conservative states have also not been especially friendly territory for a Hail Mary attempt to ban abortion and contraception.

Missouri voters turned back a nascent personhood campaign which failed to collect enough signatures to make the ballot.

In Georgia, Iowa and Kansas where citizen-initiated amendments are prohibited, lawmakers did not yield to paleo-conservative lobbying and rejected bills to refer the measures to the voters.

However, Georgia Right-to-Life did successfully add a personhood straw poll to 45 partisan county primary ballots. Voters will be asked July 20 to express their preference for a constitutional amendment though the results have no legal bearing. Backers hope to use the results to again pressure Georgia lawmakers to place a constitutional amendment on the 2012 ballot.

In California, where conservative candidates slugged it out in contentious statewide GOP primaries, personhood advocates couldn’t pull out a win to push a “human rights amendment” masquerading as a personhood measure.

Yet, it’s a basic misreading of federal case law and state constitution rules that will likely cause the group’s undoing in Mississippi — the one conservative state that held the most promise for setting up a protracted challenge to abortion rights under Roe v Wade.

While personhood activists did meet state petition submission requirements, Rewire discovered that a unique provision in the Mississippi constitution prohibits modifying its Bill of Rights by citizen initiative. The anti-choice movement frames the lack of zygote civil rights as akin to the Dred Scott citizenship decision which was later overruled by the 14th Amendment.

The petty insults directed at the Nevada court are also not likely a harbinger of good legal system karma either. A legal challenge to the Mississippi ballot question is expected.

Meanwhile, personhood petitions continue to be circulated in Alaska, Florida and Oregon.

News Abortion

Iowa GOP Legislator: Ending Legal Abortion ‘Impossible’ Without ‘Personhood’ Laws

Teddy Wilson

GOP-backed "personhood" laws have been an unmitigated failure. Voters in state after state have rejected by wide margins personhood ballot initiatives, and personhood bills have failed to gain traction in many legislatures.

An Iowa Republican plans to introduce a measure defining life as beginning at conception in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling striking down an anti-choice Texas law, which has limited states’ ability to restrict abortion care access.

State Sen. Jason Schultz (R-Schleswig) told IowaWatch that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt proves that the anti-choice movement’s attack on abortion rights is not working.

“The Supreme Court decision reinforced that incrementally ending abortion is impossible,” Schultz said. “You either have it or you don’t.”

So-called personhood laws seek to classify fertilized eggs, zygotes, embryos, and fetuses as people, and to grant them full legal protection under the U.S. Constitution.

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GOP-backed “personhood” laws have been an unmitigated failure. Voters in state after state have rejected by wide margins personhood ballot initiatives, and personhood bills have failed to gain traction in many legislatures.

Personhood bills were introduced this year by Republican lawmakers in Alabama, Colorado, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, and Rhode Island.

Rachel Lopez, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, told IowaWatch that personhood measures are routinely introduced in Iowa but have failed to gain traction in the GOP-dominated legislature.

“Although we have not yet seen the details of this impending effort, we are confident that it also will fail to advance,” Lopez said. “Personhood bills are a waste of both time and taxpayer dollars, as they have failed time and again in Iowa and other states.”

Iowa lawmakers this year introduced SJR 2001, a joint resolution proposing an amendment to the state constitution specifying that the document does not secure or protect a fundamental right to abortion care.

SJR 2001 was referred to the senate rules and administration committee, but never received a hearing or a vote.

Schultz, who was elected to the state senate in 2014 after serving in the house, has sponsored or co-sponsored several anti-choice bills while in the state legislature, including personhood measures.

SF 478, sponsored by Schultz during the 2015 legislative session, would have defined “person” when referring to the victim of a murder, to mean “an individual human being, without regard to age of development, from the moment of conception, when a zygote is formed, until natural death.”

Mark Kende, director of Drake University’s Constitutional Law Center, told IowaWatch that Schultz’s proposal would not survive in the courts.

“He can try to pass that legislation but it certainly wouldn’t trump the federal Constitution,” Kende said. “Even if that language got into the state constitution it can’t defy three Supreme Court decisions in the last 40 years.”

Gov. Terry Branstad (R) told IowaWatch that he could not support Schultz’s proposal.

“I’m pro-life and I want to do what I can to encourage things that can protect the lives of unborn children,” Branstad said. “Yet I also recognize that we have to live with the restrictions that have been placed on the states by the courts.”

Branstad signed many of the state’s laws restricting abortion access that came up during the latter part of his first term as governor.

News Politics

Anti-Choice Group Faces Fundraising Gap in ‘Topsy-Turvy Year’

Amy Littlefield

“I will tell you that this has been the toughest year we have faced since I’ve been executive director of National Right to Life—and I came here in 1984—for our political fundraising,” David O’Steen announced at the annual National Right to Life Convention Friday.

Less than two weeks after the Supreme Court dealt the anti-choice movement its most devastating blow in decades, one of the nation’s leading anti-choice groups gathered at an airport hotel in Virginia for its annual convention.

The 46th annual National Right to Life Convention arrived at what organizers acknowledged was an unusual political moment. Beyond the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down abortion restrictions in Texas, the anti-choice movement faces the likely nomination later this month of a Republican presidential candidate who once described himself as “very pro-choice.”

The mood felt lackluster as the three-day conference opened Thursday, amid signs many had opted not to trek to the hotel by Dulles airport, about an hour from Washington, D.C. With workshops ranging from “Pro-Life Concerns About Girl Scouts,” to “The Pro-Life Movement and Congress: 2016,” the conference seeks to educate anti-choice activists from across the United States.

While convention director Jacki Ragan said attendance numbers were about on par with past years, with between 1,000 and 1,100 registrants, the sessions were packed with empty chairs, and the highest number of audience members Rewire counted in any of the general sessions was 150. In the workshops, attendance ranged from as many as 50 people (at one especially popular panel featuring former abortion clinic workers) to as few as four.

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The attendance wasn’t the only sign of flagging enthusiasm.

“I will tell you that this has been the toughest year we have faced since I’ve been executive director of National Right to Life—and I came here in 1984—for our political fundraising,” National Right to Life Executive Director David O’Steen announced at Friday morning’s general session. “It’s been a topsy-turvy year. It’s been, for many people, a discouraging year. Many, many, many pro-life dollars, or dollars from people that would normally donate, were spent amongst 17 candidates in the Republican primary.”

O’Steen said the organization needed “$4 million that we do not have right now.”

When asked by Rewire to clarify details of the $4 million shortfall, O’Steen said, “You’re thinking this through more deeply than I have so far. Basically, the Right to Life movement, we will take the resources we have and we will use them as effectively as we can.”  

O’Steen said the organization wasn’t alone in its fundraising woes. “I think across many places, a lot of money was spent in these primaries,” he said. (An analysis by the Center for Public Integrity found presidential candidates and affiliated groups spent $1 billion on the presidential race through March alone, nearly two-thirds of it on the Republican primary. Anti-choice favorite Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R) spent more than than $70 million, higher than any other Republican.)

The National Right to Life Board of Directors voted to back Cruz in the Republican presidential primaries back in April. It has not yet formally backed Donald Trump.

“I really don’t know if there will be a decision, what it will be,” National Right to Life Committee President Carol Tobias told Rewire. “Everything has [been] kind of crazy and up in the air this year, so we’re going to wait and kind of see everything that happens. It’s been a very unusual year all the way around.”

Some in the anti-choice movement have openly opposed Trump, including conservative pundit Guy Benson, who declared at Thursday’s opening session, “I’m not sure if we have someone who is actually pro-life in the presidential race.”

But many at the convention seemed ready to rally behind Trump, albeit half-heartedly. “Let’s put it this way: Some people don’t know whether they should even vote,” said the Rev. Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life. “Of course you should … the situation we have now is just a heightened version of what we face in any electoral choice, namely, you’re choosing between two people who, you know, you can have problems with both of them.”

Another issue on the minds of many attendees that received little mention throughout the conference was the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, which struck down provisions in Texas requiring abortion providers to have hospital admitting privileges and mandating clinics meet the standards of hospital-style surgery centers. The case did not challenge Texas’ 20-week abortion ban.

“We aren’t going to have any changes in our strategy,” Tobias told Rewire, outlining plans to continue to focus on provisions including 20-week bans and attempts to outlaw the common second-trimester abortion procedure of dilation and evacuation, which anti-choice advocates call “dismemberment” abortion.

But some conference attendees expressed skepticism about the lack of any new legal strategy.

“I haven’t heard any discussion at all yet about, in light of the recent Supreme Court decision, how that weighs in strategically, not just with this legislation, but all pro-life legislation in the future,” Sam Lee, of Campaign Life Missouri, said during a panel discussion on so-called dismemberment abortion. “There has not been that discussion this weekend and that’s probably one of my disappointments right now.”

The Supreme Court decision has highlighted differing strategies within the anti-choice community. Americans United for Life has pushed copycat provisions like the two that were struck down in Texas to require admitting privileges and surgery center standards under the guise of promoting women’s health. National Right to Life, on the other hand, says it’s focused on boilerplate legislation that “makes the baby visible,” in an attempt to appeal to Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who cast a key vote to uphold a “partial-birth abortion” ban in 2007.

When asked by Rewire about the effect of the Texas Supreme Court case, James Bopp, general counsel for the National Right to Life Committee, appeared to criticize the AUL strategy in Texas. (Bopp is, among other things, the legal brain behind Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that opened the floodgates for corporate spending on elections.)

“This case was somewhat extreme, in the sense that there were 40 abortion clinics—now this is just corresponding in time, not causation, this is a correlation—there were 40 abortion clinics and after the law, there were six,” Bopp said. “That’s kind of extreme.”

Speaking to an audience of about ten people during a workshop on campaign finance, Bopp said groups seeking to restrict abortion would need to work harder to solidify their evidence. “People will realize … as you pass things that you’re going to have to prove this in court so you better get your evidence together and get ready to present it, rather than just assuming that you don’t have to do that which was the assumption in Texas,” he said. “They changed that standard. It changed. So you’ve gotta prove it. Well, we’ll get ready to prove it.”