News Abortion

Campaign for Mississippi ‘Personhood’ Ballot Initiative Fails

Teddy Wilson

The proposed state constitutional amendment declaring that life begins at conception was nearly identical to an initiative that was rejected by 58 percent of Mississippi voters in 2011.

An anti-choice campaign in Mississippi to get a “personhood” initiative on the ballot in November 2015 ended unsuccessfully last week. A year after filing paperwork for the ballot initiative, organizers failed to turn in petitions with the required number of signatures.

The proposed state constitutional amendment declaring that life begins at conception was nearly identical to an initiative that was rejected by 58 percent of Mississippi voters in 2011. Proponents of the “personhood” initiative claim voters were confused by how the amendment would affect in vitro fertilization and birth control.

Jennifer Mason, communications director for Personhood USA, told the Washington Times that the activists in Mississippi did not turn in the petitions because they “never collected” any signatures. At least 107,216 signatures from registered voters were required to place the initiative on the ballot. A statement released by Personhood USA claims that supporters of the initiative “decided last fall not to collect signatures” and to “suspend” the signature campaign. The statement also says that plans are being made for a “future citizen-led initiative.”

This directly contradicts a statement made by an organizer in Mississippi in March, several months after that decision reportedly was made. The Jackson Free Press reported that Anne Reed, spokesperson for Personhood Mississippi, said “with confidence” that because the wording of the initiative is much clearer, organizers should not have a hard time collecting the required signatures.

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In a statement released by Parents Against Personhood, a political advocacy organization that raises awareness about the unintended consequences of “personhood” amendments and legislation, Atlee Breland said that the organization is “relieved” that the measure will not be on the ballot. “We hope that organizers will respect the opinions that Mississippians have now expressed twice over and decline to pursue future personhood efforts,” wrote Breland.

Felicia Brown-Williams, public policy director for Planned Parenthood Southeast, told the Associated Press when the petition initiative was launched last year that health-care decisions should be left to a “woman, her family, her doctor, and her faith — not politicians.”

There are similar efforts underway in other states, such as Colorado, where a “fetal homicide” amendment on the 2014 election ballot is being backed by Personhood USA. Similar initiatives were rejected by Colorado voters in 2008 and 2010.

Culture & Conversation Abortion

With Buffer Zones and Decline of ‘Rescues’ Came Anti-Choice Legal Boom, Book Argues

Eleanor J. Bader

University of Denver's Joshua Wilson argues that prosecutions of abortion-clinic protesters and the decline of "rescue" groups in the 1980s and 1990s boosted conservative anti-abortion legal activism nationwide.

There is nothing startling or even new in University of Denver Professor Joshua C. Wilson’s The New States of Abortion Politics (Stanford University Press). But the concise volume—just 99 pages of text—pulls together several recent trends among abortion opponents and offers a clear assessment of where that movement is going.

As Wilson sees it, anti-choice activists have moved from the streets, sidewalks, and driveways surrounding clinics to the courts. This, he argues, represents not only a change of agitational location but also a strategic shift. Like many other scholars and advocates, Wilson interprets this as a move away from pushing for the complete reversal of Roe v. Wade and toward a more incremental, state-by-state winnowing of access to reproductive health care. Furthermore, he points out that it is no coincidence that this maneuver took root in the country’s most socially conservative regions—the South and Midwest—before expanding outward.

Wilson credits two factors with provoking this metamorphosis. The first was congressional passage of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act in 1994, legislation that imposed penalties on protesters who blocked patients and staff from entering or leaving reproductive health facilities. FACE led to the establishment of protest-free buffer zones at freestanding clinics, something anti-choicers saw as an infringement on their right to speak freely.

Not surprisingly, reproductive rights activists—especially those who became active in the 1980s and early 1990s as a response to blockades, butyric acid attacks, and various forms of property damage at abortion clinics—saw the zones as imperative. In their experiences, buffer zones were the only way to ensure that patients and staff could enter or leave a facility without being harassed or menaced.

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The second factor, Wilson writes, involved the reduced ranks of the so-called “rescue” movement, a fundamentalist effort led by the Lambs of Christ, Operation Rescue, Operation Save America, and Priests for Life. While these groups are former shadows of themselves, the end of the rescue era did not end anti-choice activism. Clinics continue to be picketed, and clinicians are still menaced. In fact, local protesters and groups such as 40 Days for Life and the Center for Medical Progress (which has exclusively targeted Planned Parenthood) negatively affect access to care. Unfortunately, Wilson does not tackle these updated forms of harassment and intimidation—or mention that some of the same players are involved, albeit in different roles.

Instead, he argues the two threads—FACE and the demise of most large-scale clinic protests—are thoroughly intertwined. Wilson accurately reports that the rescue movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s resulted in hundreds of arrests as well as fines and jail sentences for clinic blockaders. This, he writes, opened the door to right-wing Christian attorneys eager to make a name for themselves by representing arrested and incarcerated activists.

But the lawyers’ efforts did not stop there. Instead, they set their sights on FACE and challenged the statute on First Amendment grounds. As Wilson reports, for almost two decades, a loosely connected group of litigators and activists worked diligently to challenge the buffer zones’ legitimacy. Their efforts finally paid off in 2014, when the U.S. Supreme Court found that “protection against unwelcome speech cannot justify restrictions on the use of public streets and sidewalks.” In short, the decision in McCullen v. Coakley found that clinics could no longer ask the courts for blanket prohibitions on picketing outside their doors—even when they anticipated prayer vigils, demonstrations, or other disruptions. They had to wait until something happened.

This, of course, was bad news for people in need of abortions and other reproductive health services, and good news for the anti-choice activists and the lawyers who represented them. Indeed, the McCullen case was an enormous win for the conservative Christian legal community, which by the early 2000s had developed into a network united by opposition to abortion and LGBTQ rights.

The New States of Abortion Politics zeroes in on one of these legal groups: the well-heeled and virulently anti-choice Alliance Defending Freedom, previously known as the Alliance Defense Fund. It’s a chilling portrait.

According to Wilson, ADF’s budget was $40 million in 2012, a quarter of which came from the National Christian Foundation, an Alpharetta, Georgia, entity that claims to have distributed $6 billion in grants to right-wing Christian organizing efforts since 1982.

By any measure, ADF has been effective in promoting its multipronged agenda: “religious liberty, the sanctity of life, and marriage and the family.” In practical terms, this means opposing LGBTQ inclusion, abortion, marriage equality, and the right to determine one’s gender identity for oneself.

The group’s tentacles run deep. In addition to a staff of 51 full-time lawyers and hundreds of volunteers, a network of approximately 3,000 “allied attorneys” work in all 50 states to boost ADF’s agenda. Allies are required to sign a statement affirming their commitment to the Trinitarian Statement of Faith, a hallmark of fundamentalist Christianity that rests on a literal interpretation of biblical scripture. They also have to commit to providing 450 hours of pro bono legal work over three years to promote ADF’s interests—no matter their day job or other obligations. Unlike the American Bar Association, which encourages lawyers to provide free legal representation to poor clients, ADF’s allied attorneys steer clear of the indigent and instead focus exclusively on sexuality, reproduction, and social conservatism.

What’s more, by collaborating with other like-minded outfits—among them, Liberty Counsel and the American Center for Law and Justice—ADF provides conservative Christian lawyers with an opportunity to team up on both local and national cases. Periodic trainings—online as well as in-person ones—offer additional chances for skill development and schmoozing. Lastly, thanks to Americans United for Life, model legislation and sample legal briefs give ADF’s other allies an easy way to plug in and introduce ready-made bills to slowly but surely chip away at abortion, contraceptive access, and LGBTQ equality.

The upshot has been dramatic. Despite the recent Supreme Court win in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the number of anti-choice measures passed by statehouses across the country has ramped up since 2011. Restrictions—ranging from parental consent provisions to mandatory ultrasound bills and expanded waiting periods for people seeking abortions—have been imposed. Needless to say, the situation is unlikely to improve appreciably for the foreseeable future. What’s more, the same people who oppose abortion have unleashed a backlash to marriage equality as well as anti-discrimination protections for the trans community, and their howls of disapproval have hit a fever pitch.

The end result, Wilson notes, is that the United States now has “an inconstant localized patchwork of rules” governing abortion; some counties persist in denying marriage licenses to LGBTQ couples, making homophobic public servants martyrs in some quarters. As for reproductive health care, it all depends on where one lives: By virtue of location, some people have relatively easy access to medical providers while others have to travel hundreds of miles and take multiple days off from work to end an unwanted pregnancy. Needless to say, this is highly pleasing to ADF’s attorneys and has served to bolster their fundraising efforts. After all, nothing brings in money faster than demonstrable success.

The New States of Abortion Politics is a sobering reminder of the gains won by the anti-choice movement. And while Wilson does not tip his hand to indicate his reaction to this or other conservative victories—he is merely the reporter—it is hard to read the volume as anything short of a call for renewed activism in support of reproductive rights, both in the courts and in the streets.

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.