This post is drawn from Ari Armstrong’s and my new policy paper: The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception. I’m currently posting the full paper as a series of blog posts. You can read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.

The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception

By Ari Armstrong and Diana Hsieh, Ph.D
A policy paper written for the Coalition for Secular Government (
Published on August 31, 2010

The Destructive Effects of ‘Personhood’

Abortions to Protect a Woman’s Health

Thankfully, modern medicine makes both pregnancy and abortion relatively safe. The Centers for Disease Control reports, “The risk of death from complications of pregnancy has decreased approximately 99% during the twentieth century, from approximately 850 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in 1900 to 7.5 in 1982. However, since 1982, no further decrease has occurred in maternal mortality in the United States.” The report notes that most women who die from pregnancy die during live birth.[77] By way of comparison, the Guttmacher Institute notes, “Fewer than 0.5% of women obtaining abortions experience a complication, and the risk of death associated with abortion is about one-tenth that associated with childbirth.”[78]

However, for some small fraction of pregnant women with health problems, getting an abortion is far safer for her than attempting to give birth. The advocates of “personhood” laws claim that they would allow doctors to intervene to save the life of the mother. However, these laws would force doctors to balance the health of the woman with the life of the embryo or fetus, resulting in permanent injury or death for some women who would otherwise choose the relative safety of an abortion.

Personhood Colorado denies that Amendment 62 would “threaten the death penalty on doctors who do legitimate invasive surgery that could unintentionally harm a child in the womb.” The organization continues:

In Colorado, the death penalty is only available for first degree murder with aggravating factors. First degree murder requires deliberation and intent. There are no legitimate medical procedures that are intended to kill the child in the womb, and in those extremely rare situations where a woman needs treatment that might unintentionally result in the death of the child, the doctor would not have acted with intent to kill or even harm the child, but with intent to cure the mother. Before Colorado passed [its] abortion law legalizing abortion in 1967 there were no prosecutions of doctors for legitimate medical treatment. There will be no threat whatsoever to doctors practicing legitimate medicine when the Colorado Personhood Amendment passes. This is a scare tactic. …

[Amendment 62] won’t ban surgeries for women who have tubal pregnancies, also known as ectopic pregnancies.

The crucial issue in criminal law is always intent. Law School 101 teaches you that the basic elements of any crime are a guilty mind (mens rea) and a guilty act (actus reus). A doctor who performs a procedure to cut out a damaged section of a fallopian tube where a human embryo is lodged is not intending to kill the human embryo, instead she is attempting to cure a physical ailment, and unintentionally causing the death of a human embryo.[79]

Personhood Colorado’s claims about the lack of prosecutions under previous anti-abortion laws are meaningless, as those laws were dramatically different from any “personhood” measure.

More importantly, Personhood Colorado ignores the fact that first degree murder is not the only relevant statute. Colorado statute 18-3-105 states, “Any person who causes the death of another person by conduct amounting to criminal negligence commits criminally negligent homicide which is a class 5 felony.” Statute 18-1-501(3) clarifies: “A person acts with criminal negligence when, through a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would exercise, he fails to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk that a result will occur or that a circumstance exists.” Felony negligence does not require deliberation or intent.

True, a jury might apply the “reasonable person” standard in order to rule that any medical intervention to protect the life or health of the mother constitutes an appropriate “standard of care.” Alternately, the legislature might pass statutes clarifying that such medical interventions are legal. However, law enforcers would also be constitutionally bound to grant embryos and fetuses full legal rights, and they would urge juries to consider the implications of the language of Amendment 62. Even if a criminally prosecuted woman or doctor won in court, just the financial costs and emotional distress of a trial could take a heavy toll.

Moreover, it is not clear that, according to the language of “personhood,” a doctor could intervene to save the health (rather than the life) of a woman by terminating a pregnancy. Colorado Right to Life recognizes exceptions only when “the mother’s life” is “in danger.” And even “under those circumstances, those responsible must make every legitimate effort to save the life of both mother and child.”[80] In a separate statement, Colorado Right to Life recognizes the legitimacy of terminating a pregnancy only “when the mother’s life is seriously threatened.”[81] Likewise, in a memorandum for the religiously motivated Thomas More Law Center, Robert Muise refers only to terminating a pregnancy to save a woman’s life.[82] In other words, a doctor may be legally required to save the life of the embryo or fetus even if the woman will suffer permanent physical injury as a result.

Ultimately, legislation and court cases would determine whether a doctor could terminate a pregnancy to save not only the life but also the health of a woman. However, even if the law were clear, the broader problem is that doctors can rarely predict with certainly when a patient’s life or long-term health is at risk. A doctor who terminated a pregnancy, either to save the health or life of a woman, might be second-guessed by a prosecutor. The advice and decisions of doctors would be distorted by fear of possible prosecution, rather than based solely on their best judgment of the woman’s condition and prospects. As an inevitable result, some women would receive sub-standard medical care, and perhaps suffer permanent injury or death.

Abortion bans have produced legal problems and medical horrors even in the seemingly clear-cut case of ectopic pregnancies. Ectopic pregnancies, “the leading cause of pregnancy-related death during the first trimester in the United States,” occur when a fertilized egg develops outside of the uterus. An ectopic pregnancy occurs in about two percent of all pregnancies, and in 1992 about half of all ectopic pregnancies (58,200 out of 108,800) resulted in hospitalization.[83] Following a total ban on abortion in Nicaragua, many doctors refused to perform even emergency abortions for ectopic pregnancy, and at least one woman with an ectopic pregnancy died because doctors refused to treat her, apparently out of fear of prosecution.[84]

The lives of American women with ectopic pregnancies likely would be at similar risk under an enforced “personhood” measure. The Ohio-based Association of Prolife Physicians claims that medical intervention may not be justified even in cases of ectopic pregnancies, because “there are several cases in the medical literature where abdominal ectopic pregnancies have survived,” and even in cases of “pregnancies in a fallopian tube…chemical or surgical removal of an ectopic pregnancy is not always necessary to save the mother’s life.”[85]

Other anti-abortion groups agree that medical intervention may not be warranted even in cases of ectopic pregnancies. The website emphasizes that the only relevant consideration is the life, not the health, of the pregnant woman: “making an exception for the life of the mother is by no means comparable to making an exception for the health of the mother.” However, the essay continues, “We can never say with certainty that if the pregnancy continues, the mother will die.” Regarding ectopic pregnancy, states that it might “pose a significant threat to a woman’s life during the first trimester.” But “there have been a number of documented cases where undiagnosed ectopic pregnancies have yielded successful live births,” even after a zygote “implanted in his mother’s fallopian tube.” The essay concludes on an ambiguous note:

[I]t is safe to say that ectopic pregnancy, even an untreated ectopic pregnancy, is not as life-threatening as most people are led to believe. At the same time, the risk that an ectopic pregnancy poses to the mother’s life is real and sometimes fatal, while the baby’s chance of survival is extremely slim. There are no easy answers and no “one-size-fits-all” solution. If you’re facing an ectopic pregnancy, make sure you have a pro-life doctor to walk this road with you–one that prescribes abortion as a means of last resort, not as a means of first resort.[86]

Under Amendment 62 and similar measures, how would prosecutors treat doctors who prescribe medical intervention as a “first resort” in cases of ectopic pregnancy to better protect the woman’s life and health? The question is impossible to answer in advance–and that uncertainty could impel doctors to refuse to treat women suffering from ectopic pregnancy.

Alternatively, Priests for Life maintains that some kinds of medical interventions, but not others, are justified in cases of ectopic pregnancies. The organization features an exchange with a nurse, who states, “I am an oncology nurse and was asked to give methotrexate for an ectopic pregnancy…I believe the pregnancy was tubal. Needless to say I refused because I was unsure of the morality of it.” Priests for Life replies:

The relevant moral question is whether the method or action is in fact a killing of the child. If so, that is a direct abortion, which is never permissible for any reason. …Sometimes ectopic pregnancies are handled this way, killing the child but leaving the tube intact. Such an action is morally wrong.

However, if what is done is that the damaged portion of the tube is removed because of the threat it poses to the mother, that is not a direct abortion, even if the child dies. What is done is the same thing that would be done if the tube were damaged from some other cause. The mother is not saved by the death of the child but by the removal of the tube. Because the death of the child in this case is a side effect which is not intended, and because the saving of the mother’s life is not brought about by the death of the child, such a removal of the damaged portion of the tube is morally permissible.[87]

“Personhood” laws could require doctors to conduct such bizarre theological debates before providing medical care in an emergency. Doctors might be forced to use less effective or more dangerous methods of treatment. Even doctors who attempted to comply with the law could be subject to criminal investigation and prosecution if they used a method deemed inappropriate by a police officer or prosecutor. Once again, the result could be that doctors refuse to treat women with ectopic pregnancy.

Ectopic pregnancy is not the only serious risk to a woman’s life and health in pregnancy: “a variety of medical conditions in pregnant women have the potential to affect health and cause complications that may be life threatening.” For example, about one in a thousand women get cancer during pregnancy.[88] To delay treatment until birth would be dangerous if not deadly to the pregnant woman, while to treat the woman while pregnant would be dangerous if not deadly to the embryo or fetus.

Due to its total ban on abortion, Nicaragua recently denied cancer treatment to a ten-weeks pregnant woman with cancer suspected to have spread to her brain, lungs, and breasts.[89] The anti-abortion news service decried calls to permit her to terminate the pregnancy as unnecessary.[90] Ultimately, the woman was allowed chemotherapy, and as a result, the fetus was stillborn five months later.[91] In this case, as in many others, the life of the woman could only be saved at the expense of that of the embryo or fetus. Yet under “personhood” laws, the embryo or fetus has the same right to life as the woman, so any priority given to her life must be regarded as criminally suspect.

Ultimately, under an enforced “personhood” law, a woman might not be able to obtain an abortion even if she feared for her heath or life. Depending on legislative actions and prosecutorial zeal, doctors might not be willing to terminate a pregnancy except in cases of extreme risk to a woman’s life. In cases of lesser risk to a woman’s health or uncertain risk, doctors likely would be wary about terminating a pregnancy, fearing prosecution. Women might even need to obtain bureaucratic or judicial approval to obtain an abortion, resulting in potentially dangerous delays. The result would be that some women would face increased danger of permanent physical injury or death.

Abortions for Rape, Incest, and Fetal Deformity

By establishing rights from conception, Amendment 62 and other “personhood” measures would outlaw abortion for pregnancies resulting from rape and incest. Whether the embryo was created in an act of consensual love or brutal force would not impact its legal rights. Without “morning after” medication or abortion to protect themselves from pregnancy, brutalized girls and women might be forced to endure an inescapable reminder of their attack for nine months thereafter, if not longer. Recall that Colorado Right to Life asked candidates whether they “agree that abortion is always wrong, even when the baby’s father is a criminal (a rapist),” and numerous respondents answered yes. While a small fraction of abortions terminate pregnancy resulting from rape or incest, in those few cases this legal implication of “personhood” measures become very important.

Amendment 62 also would outlaw the abortion of severely deformed fetuses without any reasonable hope of a life outside the womb. Although women’s bodies usually naturally abort in such cases, they do not always do so. A 2008 article in Boulder Weekly quotes a doctor from Georgia who discusses the devastating effects on parents if abortion is forbidden in such cases:

There were countless couples who got up and told their story [in a legislative hearing in Georgia] about how they had to have an abortion because of a child that was an[en]cephalic [missing most of the brain] or deformed in some terrible way… [T]o think that you have to carry that child, go through the pain of the delivery process and then watch it die…[92]

Recall that some variants of the “personhood” language would explicitly ban abortion “regardless of…[a fetus's] level of functioning,” and clearly that is the intent of every “personhood” measure. Under Amendment 62, aborting a deformed fetus would be just as much murder as killing a deformed infant. Thus, under “personhood” laws, painful family decisions would become political spectacles for anti-abortion activists under the false banner of “protecting life,” just as happened in the Terri Schiavo case. Leslie Hanks, who helped submit Amendment 62 to the Secretary of State, attempted to “peacefully but physically intervene” in the Schiavo case, and no doubt she would be equally prepared to intervene in the private decisions of Colorado families.[93]

Read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.


This post is drawn from Ari Armstrong’s and my new policy paper: The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception. I’m currently posting the full paper as a series of blog posts. You can read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.

The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception

By Ari Armstrong and Diana Hsieh, Ph.D
A policy paper written for the Coalition for Secular Government (
Published on August 31, 2010

The Destructive Effects of ‘Personhood’

Bans of Elective Abortions

If fully enforced, Amendment 62 and comparable measures would ban all abortions, except perhaps in cases of extreme risk to the mother’s life. As a result, the measure would cause permanent injury or death to some at-risk women, as we shall see. Even in less dire circumstances, the measure would do serious harm to women (and their partners and families) by forcing them to bring any pregnancy to term, regardless of the woman’s judgment about her best course in life.

The potential impact of “personhood” measures depends partly on how many women seek abortions. In 2006, there were around 4.3 million births in the U.S.[70] The same year, there were around 846,000 legal abortions.[71] Put another way, there were around five live births for every abortion. The Guttmacher Institute reports for 2005: “In Colorado, 100,500 of the 1,001,833 women of reproductive age became pregnant in 2005. 69% of these pregnancies resulted in live births and 16% in induced abortions.”[72] In other words, according to the proponents of Amendment 62, around 16,000 Colorado women committed murder via abortion in 2005. According to the logic and stated intent of the measure, had it been in effect then those women should have been arrested, tried, and punished with life in prison or the death penalty.

Most abortions take place early in a pregnancy. Viability, the age at which a fetus possibly can survive outside the womb with advanced medical assistance, generally is considered to be around 24 weeks at the earliest. In 2006, 62 percent of abortions were performed within the eighth week, and only 1.3 percent of abortions were performed beyond the 21st week.[73] Abortion generally takes place in the first trimester, long before the fetus is viable. By granting zygotes the legal status of persons from the moment of fertilization, Amendment 62 would outlaw abortions even in the earliest stages of pregnancy.

Why do women get abortions? A 2005 article in Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health published relevant polling results. Thirteen percent of women cited “Possible problems affecting the health of the fetus.” Twelve percent cited “Physical problems with my health.” One percent got an abortion because of rape, and fewer than half of a percent got an abortion because of incest. The most popular answer given (where women could list multiple reasons) was, “Having a baby would dramatically change my life,” at 74 percent. Many women also offered financial reasons (73 percent), lack of a partner or problems with a romantic relationship (48 percent), or desire not to have another child (38 percent).[74]

It is clear that most abortions are elective. It is equally clear that, if fully enforced, Amendment 62 (and comparable measures) would totally ban such abortions.

Most Americans support restrictions or bans on elective abortions. Gallup found that, while 19 percent of Americans said that abortion should be “illegal in all circumstances,” 54 percent said it should be “legal only under certain circumstances.” (Twenty-four percent said it should be “legal under any circumstances.”) Older results from Gallup suggest that many Americans favor legal abortion only “when the woman’s life is endangered,” “when the child would be born with a life-threatening illness,” or “when the pregnancy was caused by rape or incest.”[75]

However, contrary to that popular opinion, any ban on elective abortions, whether via “personhood” laws or other anti-abortion laws, would have far-reaching and disastrous consequences. (A later section of this paper will address the morality of elective abortions.)

Under a ban of elective abortions, a woman would be legally compelled to add a child to her family, even if she is not physically, emotionally, or financially prepared to raise the child, and regardless of the costs to her, her partner, or any existing children. True, a woman could instead opt to put the child up for adoption, and that is a good option for some. However, that requires months of pregnancy, delivery of the child, physical recovery, the time and stress of finding a suitable adoptive family, the emotional trauma of giving up a child, lifelong angst about the child’s fate, and possible worry about a future reunion. Given these high costs, it is no surprise that many women seek an elective abortion, even when illegal.

If a single state, such as Colorado, banned abortions, women who wanted an abortion would simply travel (or move) to other states to obtain one. However, the aim of “personhood” advocates is to impose universal abortion bans. What then?

Only the naive imagine that an abortion ban would put an end to elective abortion. Many women would continue to seek abortions through illegal means, either by using legal drugs and herbs to illegally induce an abortion, inflicting physical trauma on themselves to induce an abortion, buying illegal drugs to induce abortion, or turning to underground practitioners of abortion.

Rachel Benson Gold writes for the Guttmacher Institute:

Estimates of the number of illegal abortions in the 1950s and 1960s ranged from 200,000 to 1.2 million per year. …One stark indication of the prevalence of illegal abortion was the death toll. In 1930, abortion was listed as the official cause of death for almost 2,700 women–nearly one-fifth (18%) of maternal deaths recorded in that year. …By 1965, the number of deaths due to illegal abortion had fallen to just under 200, but illegal abortion still accounted for 17% of all deaths attributed to pregnancy and childbirth that year. And these are just the number that were officially reported; the actual number was likely much higher.[76]

With the imposition of harsh legal penalties for abortion, women would be less likely to seek professional medical assistance in cases of a “back-alley” abortion gone wrong, leading to more deaths and permanent injury.

The enforcement implications for elective abortion bans are alarming. Under today’s laws, police officers routinely pose as prostitutes or drug buyers to “bust” johns and drug dealers. If abortion were outlawed, police officers could also pose as abortion providers in an attempt to ensnare women seeking abortions, then arrest and prosecute them. Or police officers might pose as pregnant women seeking abortions in order to arrest and prosecute doctors providing illegal abortions.

Moreover, women who sought an abortion could, under an enforced “personhood” measure, be arrested under attempted murder or related statutes. If a parent threatened to murder his or her born child, arresting the parent would result in physically separating the parent from the child, thereby keeping the child safe. However, a pregnant woman arrested for attempted murder or menacing could not be physically separated from the embryo or fetus. Instead, any woman seeking to terminate her pregnancy would have to be physically restrained until the fetus was forcibly delivered under state supervision. Thus, the ultimate alternative to legal abortion is police officers strapping an uncooperative woman to her bed for weeks or months and forcing her to give birth–then throwing her in prison for attempted murder.

Read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.


This post is drawn from Ari Armstrong’s and my new policy paper: The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception. I’m currently posting the full paper as a series of blog posts. You can read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.

The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception

By Ari Armstrong and Diana Hsieh, Ph.D
A policy paper written for the Coalition for Secular Government (
Published on August 31, 2010

The Destructive Effects of ‘Personhood’

Given that Roe v. Wade remains in force, the impact that any state-based personhood measure may have is not clear. However, what is clear is that the ultimate agenda of the “personhood” movement is to overturn Roe v. Wade and totally ban abortion and other practices that may harm a zygote, embryo, or fetus.

As we shall see, the battle to fully enforce a “personhood” measure would generate a legal quagmire. To the degree that it were enforced, a “personhood” measure would generate horrific consequences–including harsh criminal penalties–in the areas of abortion, birth control, fertility treatments, and medical research.

A Legal Quagmire

A state constitutional provision, such as Colorado’s Amendment 62, would be implemented and enforced by legislative action, state and federal court rulings, and policies of police and prosecutors. Thus, while Personhood USA and its sympathizers have stated their views of the meaning of “personhood,” their proposed legal measures might be interpreted and enforced differently than they would prefer.

The ultimate legal impact of Amendment 62 (and related measures) cannot be perfectly predicted in advance. What is certain is that “personhood” measures would provoke many years of legal battles in legislatures and courts, ensnaring women and their partners and doctors in expensive, time-consuming, and potentially liberty-infringing civil or criminal proceedings. Also certain is that, the more consistently Amendment 62 were interpreted and enforced, the more ghastly its implications would be.

So long as the Roe v. Wade decision remains in force, state governments would not be able to impose abortion bans. Therefore, the passage of Amendment 62 in Colorado would not immediately ban abortions due to overriding federal policy. However, as discussed in the prior section, overturning Roe v. Wade and outlawing abortion is precisely what the advocates of “personhood” aim to do. That is why religious conservatives express such interest in the abortion-related views of nominated Supreme Court Justices.

Even absent a reversal of Roe v. Wade, a “personhood” measure could have far-reaching consequences. As Alaska’s Attorney General Daniel Sullivan wrote in a review of the proposed “personhood” measure in that state, courts could apply the measure “on a case by case basis” in an unpredictable number of ways:

An initiative that sought to prohibit all abortions would be clearly unconstitutional because there is controlling law, Roe v. Wade, that makes such a measure clearly unconstitutional. But there is no controlling law that makes it clearly unconstitutional to extend legal person status to the point of conception. …[I]n order to avoid a finding of unconstitutionality, the courts could interpret the personhood measure narrowly with respect to its impact on state laws regulating abortion. …With respect to other contexts, courts would have to decide on a case by case basis the extent to which extending legal person status prenatally should expand the scope of an existing law.[63]

Regarding Amendment 62 in Colorado, one possibility would be for the legislature to revise the statutes, and for states and federal courts to “interpret the personhood measure narrowly,” in an effort to minimize its impact. Sensing the measure’s harmful implications, some legislators and judges might be tempted to wink at the “personhood” language and largely ignore it, but such a practice would spare Colorado residents the worst impacts of the measure only by undermining the rule of law. Moreover, anti-abortion lawyers and activists would surely work doggedly to force the Colorado government to fully implement and enforce the measure.

The change in the language of Amendment 62, in comparison to that of Amendment 48, while intended by the measures’ sponsors to make the measure even broader, might instead provide legal grounds to interpret it much more narrowly.

Unlike Amendment 48, Amendment 62 does not explicitly mention fertilization as the commencement of personhood and rights. Amendment 48 said, “The terms ‘person’ or ‘persons’ shall include any human being from the moment of fertilization.”[64] Amendment 62, in contrast, seeks to apply the term “person” to “every human being from the beginning of the biological development of that human being.”

Why did Personhood Colorado change the 2010 language from “the moment of fertilization” to “the beginning of biological development?” The Denver Daily News explains: “Co-sponsor of the ballot initiative, Gualberto Garcia Jones, believes it is important to include even asexual forms of human reproduction, such as if science leads to cloning human beings.” Jones told the newspaper, “We would like all human beings, regardless of how they come about, to be covered, because unfortunately there’s the possibility that cloning is going on right now, and we want them to be covered as well.”[65]

Personhood Colorado’s website explains the intended meaning of “the beginning of biological development” in greater detail:

The beginning of the biological development of a human being who is created through sexual reproduction is the instant when the sperm and the ovum touch to form a unique human being. It is different from fertilization or conception in that it accounts for modern forms of asexual reproduction such as cloning. In the case of a cloned human being, his or her biological beginning is when the DNA in the cell/cells is deprogrammed or reprogrammed to the same state of differentiation as a human organism.[66]

However, neither legislators nor courts are bound by the sponsors’ interpretation of the measure’s language, which contains no mention of the sperm touching the ovum. Various voters, lawyers, and judges may argue that a “human being” in the relevant sense means an implanted embryo, an older fetus, or a born infant. By one common-sense reading, Amendment 62 merely states an empty tautology: a human being begins when a human being begins. The ambiguity of the language may induce some to vote for the measure who would not agree with the proponents’ views. The ambiguity could also generate even more future legal battles should the measure pass.

The impact of a “personhood” measure would depend on its interpretation and enforcement by various levels of government. Due to its breadth, it would have sweeping effects on a state’s legal code, such that its implementation could only be haphazard. As a result, many people would be dragged through civil and criminal trials in test cases for seemingly ordinary actions. However, the advocates of “personhood” have for the most part stated their views of the proposed law clearly, and they would fight to implement the law accordingly. And to the degree that “personhood” is enforced, it would create a police-state nightmare for countless women, their partners, and their doctors.

Harsh Legal Penalties

If passed and enforced, a “personhood” measure would affect the meaning of the criminal law, mandating harsh legal penalties for harm done to zygotes, embryos, and fetuses. Intentionally harming a zygote would be a crime of the same magnitude as harming a born infant, and intentionally killing a zygote would be murder.

Colorado Statute 18-3-102 states, “A person commits the crime of murder in the first degree if…[a]fter deliberation and with the intent to cause the death of a person other than himself, he causes the death of that person or of another person…Murder in the first degree is a class 1 felony.” Thus, if a zygote is legally a person from the moment of fertilization, then any intentional act of preventing it from implanting (such as by taking the “morning after” pill) or aborting an embryo or fetus would be first-degree murder.

By Colorado law, the punishment for that crime would be life in prison or death. Statute 18-1.4-102 states, “Upon conviction of guilt of a defendant of a class 1 felony, the trial court shall conduct a separate sentencing hearing to determine whether the defendant should be sentenced to death or life imprisonment…”

While few supporters of Amendment 62 would likely endorse such draconian punishments, its intended meaning as articulated by its sponsors leaves no room for doubt: any woman who deliberately harms a zygote or who terminates her pregnancy would be guilty of murder under Colorado law. In fact, at least one Colorado religious leader has explicitly called for the death penalty for abortion (among other alleged offenses).[67] While American Right to Life does not directly advocate the death penalty for abortion, it explicitly calls abortion murder and “advocates the death penalty for everyone convicted of a capital crime.”[68]

In addition, coroners, police officers, and prosecutors might be obliged, pressured, or inspired to investigate or prosecute any miscarriage deemed suspicious. A woman suspected of inducing a miscarriage (or attempting to do so) could be subject to criminal prosecution, as could others suspected of helping her in the act.

Similarly, any actions of a pregnant woman that might endanger the welfare of her embryo or fetus could be considered child abuse, which doctors might be required to report. As Indra Lusero and Lynn Paltrow said of Colorado’s Amendment 48, “If the amendment passes, Colorado’s juvenile courts will have jurisdiction whenever doctors or family members disagree with a pregnant woman’s medical decisions.”[69]

Read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.


This post is drawn from Ari Armstrong’s and my new policy paper: The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception. I’m currently posting the full paper as a series of blog posts. You can read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.

The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception

By Ari Armstrong and Diana Hsieh, Ph.D
A policy paper written for the Coalition for Secular Government (
Published on August 31, 2010

The ‘Personhood’ Movement

Campaigns in Other States

From 2008 to 2010, Personhood USA and like-minded groups participated in political campaigns in Georgia, Montana, Mississippi, Alaska, Nevada, North Dakota, and other states. While Personhood USA fell short of “its goal for 2010: Personhood initiatives in all 50 states,” it extended its campaign to far beyond Colorado.[36]

On July 20, 2010, Georgia’s Republican voters approved by wide margins “personhood” language similar to that of the Colorado measure, endorsing the position that the “right to life is vested in each human being from their earliest biological beginning until natural death.” In only one county did Democratic voters express an opinion on the language, and they approved it as well.[37]

While “legally the outcome of the question bears no weight,” Dan Becker, president of Georgia Right to Life, “said he’ll use the stats to lobby the Legislature for a proposed constitutional amendment” in 2011, reports the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.[38]

The “personhood” language on the primary ballots is part of a broader push for “personhood” in Georgia, as it is in Colorado. As the Journal-Constitution reported, the August 10 Republican primary for governor was a “major test of influence for Georgia’s most aggressive anti-abortion organization,” Georgia Right to Life, which endorsed Nathan Deal over Karen Handel.[39] The organization’s political action director, Melanie Crozier, said, “All six of the Republican front-runners for Governor have endorsed a Personhood Amendment to the Georgia Constitution.” She continued, “Karen Handel, while not endorsed by GRTL because of her opposition to pro-life positions, still maintains her support of a Personhood Amendment.”[40] Handel lost to Deal in a close race.[41] Here, Georgia’s “personhood” movement achieved its goal.

Georgia Republicans endorse candidates who advocate abortion bans for federal office too. Becker said, “During the 2008 Presidential primary, Georgia’s Republican voters selected the most pro-life candidate in the entire field, Gov. Mike Huckabee.” Becker notes that Huckabee “was the only viable candidate that endorsed a Personhood Amendment.”[42] Huckabee endorsed Colorado’s Amendment 48 in 2008 and campaigned on its behalf.[43]

In Montana, anti-abortion groups failed to collect sufficient signatures to place Constitutional Initiative 102 on the 2010 ballot. In seeking to amend the constitution’s provision protecting life, liberty, property, and due process, the language of the measure states, “As used in this section, the word ‘person’ applies to all human beings, irrespective of age, health, function, physical or mental dependency or method of reproduction, from the beginning of the biological development of that human being.”[44]

Annie Bukacek, sponsor of the measure, “vowed that the group will…try again in 2012 and that [it] will start its signature gathering in June 2011,” the Billings Gazette reports.[45] A volunteer for the effort said, “The hardworking volunteers see this as a stepping stone to victory in 2011.” Cal Zastrow, co-founder of Personhood USA, added, “Jesus Christ is building a movement for personhood rights of babies across the country. He will continue to build in Montana…”[46]

Mississippi Initiative Measure 26 seeks to amend the Bill of Rights (Article III) of the state’s constitution by adding the following language as a new section: “As used in this Article III of the state constitution, ‘The term “person” or “persons” shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the functional equivalent thereof.’”[47]

The measure “is scheduled [to appear] on the ballot in November 2011,” reports the Associated Press. However, the AP notes, Jackson attorney Robert McDuff, in association with Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union, filed suit against the measure on July 6, arguing that “the initiative process can’t be used to change the state Bill of Rights.”[48] On August 12 the anti-abortion Liberty Counsel announced it would “file a motion to intervene” in the suit.[49]

Like the measure in Mississippi, the “personhood” proposal in Alaska remained subject to pending legal action as of mid-2010. In an October 22, 2009, letter, Alaska Lieutenant Governor Craig Campbell certified the application for the “Legal Personhood Initiative.”[50] The Lieutenant Governor’s web page lists a “petition file deadline” of November 5, 2010.[51]

However, as the lieutenant governor’s web page points out, “The Alaska Constitution cannot be altered or amended by initiative.”[52] The measure is therefore a proposed “act” stating: “All human beings, from the beginning of their biological development as human organisms, including a single-cell embryo, regardless of age, health, level of functioning, condition of dependency or method of reproduction, shall be recognized as legal persons in the state of Alaska.”[53]

In late 2009, the Anchorage Daily News summarized the legal challenge to the measure: “The lawsuit argues that Campbell should never have certified the measure. The plaintiffs contend the proposal has far-reaching potential consequences and there is no way voters can know what it might mean for state laws if it passed.”[54]

Personhood USA had planned to offer a constitutional amendment on Nevada’s 2010 ballot. While the main constitutional language was brief–”the term ‘person’ applies to every human being”–the measure’s “description of effect” contained language comparable to that used in other states and referred explicitly to extending rights to the “unborn.”[55]

However, as the Las Vegas Review-Journal explains, the proponents of the measure faced a delay in gathering signatures when “Carson City District Judge James T. Russell ruled Jan. 8 that the Personhood petition could not be circulated because its language was so vague that voters would not understand its intentions.” Keith Mason (co-founder of Personhood USA) told the newspaper, “We are committed to coming back to Nevada. We are building support for 2012.”[56]

In 2009, the North Dakota Senate voted down a “personhood” measure previously approved by the House. However, even the bill’s sponsor, Representative Dan Ruby, did not seem to be totally on board with Personhood USA’s agenda. He said, in contradiction to the organization’s position, that, after fertilization, “when an egg is not implanted [in the uterus]…it’s not even alive.”[57]

“Personhood” efforts have met with even less success in other states. While Personhood Florida submitted language for the 2010 ballot about “the beginning of biological development,” the measure “will not appear on a ballot,” Ballotpedia mentions without further elaboration.[58] While a California “personhood” group tried to place the “California Human Rights Amendment” on the 2010 ballot, it “failed to obtain enough signatures to qualify it.”[59]

In Missouri, tension arose within the anti-abortion movement over incremental reforms. Working with Personhood USA, Gregory Thompson and others attempted to place a “personhood” measure on the Missouri ballot.[60] What happened instead is that, on July 14, 2010, the governor allowed activation of a new law (Senate Bill 793) strengthening the state’s mandatory waiting period and notification laws pertaining to abortion. Abortion providers “will have to supply a state-produced brochure proclaiming: ‘The life of each human being begins at conception,’” the Associated Press reports.[61] While Missouri Right to Life praised the passage of the bill, Thompson condemned Missouri Right to Life for embracing “politicians that are ‘pro-death, with exceptions.’”[62] In this case, the “personhood” movement seems to have chipped away at abortion rights in Missouri, albeit in ways it does not endorse and without achieving its ultimate goals.

As of the summer of 2010, then, the “personhood” movement has found little success advancing its agenda by law. However, the movement has found strong support in some regions of the country, in certain religious communities, and among segments of the Republican Party. It has mobilized thousands of zealous activists committed to the movement’s long-term goals. It has gained experience in effective grass-roots activism. And it has learned to craft its message to gain support and diffuse opposition.

Personhood USA appears eager to continue advancing its agenda in 2011, 2012, and beyond, raising the possibility of success in some states in the future. Even if it fails to ever impose its definition of “personhood” by law, its campaigns may strengthen public opposition to abortion and encourage more incremental restrictions on abortion.

Read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.


This post is drawn from Ari Armstrong’s and my new policy paper: The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception. I’m currently posting the full paper as a series of blog posts. You can read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.

The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception

By Ari Armstrong and Diana Hsieh, Ph.D
A policy paper written for the Coalition for Secular Government (
Published on August 31, 2010

The ‘Personhood’ Movement

Colorado Campaigns

The “personhood” movement launched its first major initiative in 2008 in Colorado with Amendment 48, which voters defeated in November by a margin of 73 to 27 percent.[18] (The same year, South Dakota voters defeated Measure 11, which sought to ban most abortions through abortion-specific language, and California voters rejected Proposition 4, which sought to institute a waiting period and parental notification requirements prior to obtaining an abortion.[19])

Despite the pointed defeat of Amendment 48, “personhood” advocates vowed to return in Colorado and expand their cause to other states. They have done that. In a 2009 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Keith Mason, a co-founder of Personhood USA, said, “We have big and small efforts going on in 30 states right now…Our goal is to activate the population.” Mason likened his cause to the abolitionist movement to end slavery.[20] Apparently the “personhood” movement seeks to gain support over the long term, even if short-term electoral success proves impossible.

In 2010, Personhood Colorado (a group associated with Personhood USA) gathered sufficient signatures for a new measure, assigned to the Colorado ballot as Amendment 62.[21] Like Amendment 48, the new measure seeks to add a section to Colorado’s Bill of Rights extending full legal rights from the moment of conception. (Gualberto Garcia Jones, along with the vice president of Colorado Right to Life, Leslie Hanks, submitted the paperwork for Amendment 62.[22])

Amendment 62 states: “Section 32 [of Article II]. Person defined. As used in sections 3, 6, and 25 of Article II of the state constitution, the term ‘person’ shall apply to every human being from the beginning of the biological development of that human being.”[23]

The implications of Amendment 62, then, must be evaluated in light of the other cited sections:

Section 3. Inalienable rights.

All persons have certain natural, essential and inalienable rights, among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; of acquiring, possessing and protecting property; and of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.

Section 6. Equality of justice.

Courts of justice shall be open to every person, and a speedy remedy afforded for every injury to person, property or character; and right and justice should be administered without sale, denial or delay.

Section 25. Due process of law.

No person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law.

Essentially, Amendment 62 would grant the same legal rights to a newly fertilized zygote that a born infant enjoys. The measure would authorize police, prosecutors, judges, and other officials to intervene to protect embryos and fetuses just as they intervene to protect newborn infants. For example, as columnist Ed Quillen points out, “Every home miscarriage would have to be investigated by the coroner, for it’s his legal duty to look into all deaths of persons that do not occur under medical supervision.”[24] In every other way, an embryo or fetus would receive equivalent legal protection of a newborn.

A primary political strategy of Personhood Colorado has been to garner support among Republicans. In 2008, numerous high-profile Republican office holders and candidates endorsed “personhood”; in 2010 even more did so.

Colorado Right to Life issued similarly-worded candidate surveys in 2008 and 2010. The survey asks (among other things) whether candidates support “the God-given, inalienable Right to Life for the unborn”; “agree that abortion is always wrong, even when the baby’s father is a criminal (i.e. a rapist)”; endorse the “personhood” measure; and oppose “embryonic stem cell research.”[25]

In 2008, those who agreed completely with Colorado Right to Life’s agenda included Congressman Doug Lamborn (elected to the Fifth Congressional district in 2006); Congressman Mike Coffman (elected to the Sixth Congressional district in 2008); Jeff Crank (who lost the primary to Lamborn in 2008 but hosted a radio show and became state director of Americans for Prosperity); and (except for a question about incremental legislation) Kevin Lundberg (appointed to the state senate in 2009 after serving as state representative).[26]

In 2010, Colorado Right to Life proclaimed even greater Republican support for its agenda:

In 2008, most major candidates were unwilling to take a stand on Personhood. It’s possible that Bob Schaffer, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate, lost because he did not endorse Personhood, and many voters did not consider him sufficiently pro-life. By contrast, in 2010, every credible Republican candidate for top statewide offices has said they support Personhood, and most of the credible Republican candidates for U.S. Senate and Congress have also expressed support for Personhood.[27]

Conservative activist Ed Hanks notes that “three of the seven candidates for districts in Congress are on record as supporting Personhood–Cory Gardner, Doug Lamborn and Mike Coffman.”[28] Colorado Right to Life notes that Gardner, a candidate in the Fourth Congressional district, joined Lamborn and Coffman in expressing perfect agreement with the organization’s agenda.[29]

In the Republican primaries for governor and U.S. Senate, all four candidates endorsed “personhood,” and the staunchest anti-abortion candidates won. In the governor’s race, Dan Maes beat scandal-plagued Scott McInnis, who had previously served on the advisory board of Republicans for Choice and said he changed his mind on the issue.[30] (However, even though Colorado Right to Life considers Maes to be “100% pro-life,” he also said he supports current laws on birth control and regards Amendment 62 as “simply making a statement.”[31] Maes also selected a running mate who favors legal abortions in cases of rape and incest.[32]) In the Senate race, Ken Buck, who said, “I don’t believe in the exceptions [to abortion bans] of rape or incest,” beat Jane Norton, who favored exceptions for “rape, incest, and life of the mother” (earning her criticism from Colorado Right to Life).[33]

Still, many Colorado Republicans seem confused or conflicted about the implications of “personhood.” At the 2010 Republican state convention, 79 percent supported a resolution holding that “life begins at conception and is deserving of legal protection from conception until natural death.” However, 74 percent also endorsed the statement that “pregnancy, abortion, and birth control are personal private matters not subject to government regulation or interference.”[34] Moreover, some Republicans actively oppose “personhood”; in 2008 former Republican Senator Hank Brown joined the Republican Majority for Choice in opposing Amendment 48.[35] While the “personhood” movement clearly finds strong support among Colorado Republicans and seeks to build that support, many Republicans express concern about the measure’s legal implications or oppose it outright.

Colorado voters will likely reject Amendment 62 in 2010, albeit perhaps by a smaller margin than with Amendment 48 in 2008. However, Personhood Colorado will likely gather enough signatures for a similar measure in 2012.

Read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.


This post is drawn from Ari Armstrong’s and my new policy paper: The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception. I’m currently posting the full paper as a series of blog posts. You can read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.

The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception

By Ari Armstrong and Diana Hsieh, Ph.D
A policy paper written for the Coalition for Secular Government (
Published on August 31, 2010

The ‘Personhood’ Movement

The “personhood” movement is a recent off-shoot of the “pro-life” movement. It is motivated, energetic, and idealistic. To understand its likely impact on American politics and law, we must review its origins and recent political activism.

“Personhood” and the Abortion Debate

Where does the “personhood” movement fit in the overall debate over abortion? Policy debates over abortion in America often assume just two camps: “pro-choice” on abortion and “pro-life,” or opposed to abortion. In fact, people advocate a variety of views on abortion, depending on their answers to two basic questions: (1) when during pregnancy (if ever) should abortion be legal, and (2) for what reasons?

As we shall see, the advocates of “personhood” are among the most consistent opponents of abortion, explicitly claiming that the zygote is a fully human person with an inalienable right to life. Our view, in contrast, argues for the woman’s right to abortion as absolute throughout pregnancy. Between those two extremes, various “moderate” views can be found.

The fully pro-choice position which we endorse rejects any and all restrictions on abortion as an infringement of the rights of the woman. On this view, abortion should be legal until birth, solely at the discretion of the pregnant woman. Even when a woman deserves blame for acting capriciously in deciding to terminate her pregnancy, she is within her rights to do as she pleases with her own body. Ultimately, that is because neither the embryo nor fetus has any rights. Rights begin at birth, when the fetus becomes an infant, biologically separate from the pregnant woman.

We regard this principled position as the only true “pro-choice” position, because only it fully recognizes and respects a woman’s right to govern her own body as she sees fit. We also regard it as the only truly “pro-life” position, because restrictions and bans on abortion seriously harm and sometimes destroy the lives of actual people.

Many people adopt a moderate “pro-choice” position by accepting restrictions on abortion. Such people might endorse the waiting periods or ultrasounds demanded by opponents of abortion. More commonly, they hold that early-term abortions should be legal, while later-term abortions should be restricted.

The Supreme Court drew such a distinction between early and late term abortions in its decision on Roe v. Wade. In 1973, the Court overturned state prohibitions of abortion (as well as possible future federal prohibitions), ruling: “For the stage prior to approximately the end of the first trimester, the abortion decision and its effectuation must be left to the medical judgment of the pregnant woman’s attending physician.” However, the Court also ruled that states may restrict abortion for the “health of the mother” or “in promoting its interest in the potentiality of human life” in the later stages of pregnancy.[1]

In the past, the Catholic Church accepted a similar compromise position, albeit far more on the anti-abortion side. Today, the Vatican emphatically denies that the Church ever morally accepted abortion at any stage, yet it grants that “in the Middle Ages…the opinion was generally held that the spiritual soul was not present until after the first few weeks…”[2] So, as researcher Leslie Reagan states, “Until the mid-nineteenth century, the Catholic Church implicitly accepted early abortions prior to ensoulment.”[3]

Today, the most common moderate “pro-life” or anti-abortion view is that abortions should be permitted in cases of rape and incest, as well as to save the life of the mother. In 2000, Republican presidential contenders George W. Bush and John McCain favored such exceptions for rape and incest.[4] On that view, the embryo or fetus cannot be said to have an inalienable right to life. Instead, the common argument is that a woman must pay the natural price for her decision to engage in consensual sex by enduring its known consequence: pregnancy. Almost all abortion, on this view, is an evasion of responsibility.

The Catholic Church now advocates the strict “pro-life” view that abortion should be banned, whatever the circumstances. In the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI condemned “the direct interruption of the generative process already begun and, above all, all direct abortion, even for therapeutic reasons.” The basic rationale was that abortion (and artificial birth control) is contrary to “the order of reality established by God” whereby “each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.”[5]

The advocates of “personhood” adopt a similar position on abortion: it must be banned whatever the circumstances. However, their view is based on the evangelical strain of Protestantism. As a result, their arguments that abortion is contrary to God’s will are based on (strained) interpretations of Bible passages, rather than appeals to abstract theology.[6] In their secular arguments, the advocates of “personhood” appeal to the fundamentally American notion of an inalienable right to life, claiming that for the embryo and fetus. As a result of those differences, the “personhood” movement does not reject birth control, as does the Catholic Church, provided that it solely acts to prevent fertilization of the egg by sperm.

The basic goal of the “personhood” movement is to “clearly define the pre-born baby as a person” so that embryos and fetuses “will have the same right to life as all Americans do.” It seeks to declare that a zygote is a “human being” and “person” from the moment of conception. “Personhood” advocates reject the claim that “life” or rights begin at “quickening,” when a fetus begins to move in the womb. Instead, they claim that ultrasonography, “DNA testing,” and the “science of fetology…prove…that a fully human and unique individual exists at the moment of fertilization.”[7]

Due to its clear rights-based approach, the “personhood” movement condemns moderate “pro-life” positions in the harshest possible terms. For example, American Right to Life, which proclaims itself as “the personhood wing of the pro-life movement,” condemned John McCain in 2008 as “pro-abortion,” saying he “rejects that an unborn child has the right to life” because, for example, he thinks abortion should be permitted if the “father is a rapist.”[8]

From a more historical perspective, the “personhood” movement is a recent manifestation of the religious right’s response to Roe v. Wade. In Religion In American Politics, Frank Lambert suggests that the Moral Majority of the 1970s largely reacted to “the radical politics of the sixties,” including the “‘proabortion’ forces” that prevailed in Roe v. Wade. (In fact, support for abortion rights obviously extends far beyond left-wing or “radical” politics). The Moral Majority sought to organize “evangelical leaders [to] boldly engage the culture” and advance the “pro-life” cause as part of their agenda.[9]

The “personhood” movement does not conceal these religious roots. Personhood USA, for example, declares that its “primary mission” is “to serve Jesus by being an Advocate for those who can not speak for themselves, the pre-born child.”[10] The organization is “led by Christian ministers… who are missionaries to preborn children. …They also lead and participate in peaceful pro-life activism, evangelism, and ministry” at abortion clinics, and they seek to “honor the Lord Jesus Christ” with their work.[11]

In their political activism, “personhood” advocates seek a fundamental change in the law rather than incremental changes, such as banning late-term abortions or imposing waiting periods before a woman may obtain an abortion. In addition to championing total abortion bans, “personhood” advocates explicitly seek to outlaw forms of birth control, fertility treatments, and medical research that may result in the destruction of an embryo. They say they want to protect every zygote from the moment of fertilization–and they mean it.

Since its major efforts began in 2008, the “personhood” movement has emphasized the goal of reversing Roe v. Wade as a critical step in imposing abortion bans. A document from Colorado for Equal Rights states, “Why redefine the term person? In the famous Roe v Wade Supreme Court case Justice Blackmun said basically that the whole argument for abortion rights falls apart if we know that the pre-born is a person.”[12] Similarly, paraphrases then-prominent Colorado anti-abortion activist Kristi Burton: “The time is ripe for a legal challenge to Roe v. Wade.”[13] In its 2008 candidate questionnaire, Colorado Right to Life states, “Colorado RTL opposes every law that regulates the killing of unborn children because, regardless of the intention, such laws…will keep abortion legal if Roe v. Wade is merely overturned…”[14] In 2009, Gualberto Garcia Jones, more recently a sponsor of Amendment 62, said, “All of our laws that we’re promoting are direct challenges to Roe v. Wade.”[15]

By promoting campaigns to legally recognize embryos and fetuses as persons from the moment of fertilization, the “personhood” movement has sought to change public attitudes about abortion. Personhood USA has taken credit for polling results showing increased support for abortion bans.[16] Indeed, starting in 2009, Gallup polling showed that, for the first time, more Americans called themselves “pro-life” than “pro-choice.”[17] (While we contend the anti-abortion stance is in fact the anti-life one, generally Americans understand that for such polling purposes “pro-life” indicates anti-abortion.) While Personhood USA is partly a result of an increasingly energetic anti-abortion movement, rather than the cause of it, the activities of “personhood” activists probably have helped sway public opinion.

A closer look at the political campaigns waged by the “personhood” movement will better reveal its beliefs and strategies.

Read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.


This post is drawn from Ari Armstrong’s and my new policy paper: The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception. Over the next few weeks, I’ll post the full paper as a series of blog posts. This post contains the preliminaries and the introduction. You can read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.

The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception

By Ari Armstrong and Diana Hsieh, Ph.D
A policy paper written for the Coalition for Secular Government
Published on August 31, 2010



The Coalition for Secular Government advocates government solely based on secular principles of individual rights. The protection of a person’s basic rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness–including freedom of religion and conscience–requires a strict separation of church and state.

Consequently, we oppose any laws or policies based on religious scripture or dogma, such as restrictions on abortion and government discrimination against homosexuals. We oppose any government promotion of religion, such as “intelligent design” taught in government schools and tax-funded “faith-based initiatives.” We also oppose any special exemptions or privileges granted by government to religious groups, such as exemptions for churches from the tax law applicable to other non-profits.

The Coalition for Secular Government seeks to educate the public about the necessary secular foundation of a free society, particularly the principles of individual rights and separation of church and state.

Ari Armstrong publishes Free Colorado and co-authors a column for Western Colorado’s Grand Junction Free Press. He is the author of Values of Harry Potter: Lessons for Muggles, a book exploring the heroic fight for life-promoting values in the Potter novels.

Diana Hsieh founded the Coalition for Secular Government in 2008. She earned her doctorate in philosophy from the University of Colorado, Boulder. She is currently working on a book on Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged, based on her series of podcasts at More of her work can be found at

An earlier version of this paper was published on August 19, 2008, under the title, “Amendment 48 Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters That a Fertilized Egg Is Not a Person”.

The authors would like to thank Paul Hsieh and Jeremy Sheetz for proofreading the paper, as well as Jennifer Armstrong for proofreading and design. The authors would also like to thank the 63 private donors who made this revised and expanded paper possible.


Amendment 62, set to appear on Colorado’s 2010 ballot, seeks to legally establish personhood from the moment of conception, granting a fertilized egg (or zygote) full legal rights in the state’s constitution. Following in the footsteps of 2008′s Amendment 48, Amendment 62 is the spearhead of a national campaign to outlaw abortion and other practices that could harm a zygote, embryo, or fetus.

If fully implemented, Amendment 62 would profoundly and adversely impact the lives of sexually-active couples, couples seeking children, pregnant women and their partners, doctors, and medical researchers. It would subject them to severe legal restrictions, police controls, and in many cases protracted court battles and criminal punishments.

Amendment 62 would outlaw abortion, even in cases of rape, incest, terminally deformed fetuses, and danger to the woman’s health. It would prohibit doctors from performing abortions except perhaps in some cases to save the life of the woman, thereby endangering the lives and health of many women. In conjunction with existing statutes, Amendment 62 would subject women and their doctors to first-degree murder charges for willfully terminating a pregnancy, with the required punishment of life in prison or the death penalty.

The impact of Amendment 62 would extend far beyond abortion into the personal corners of every couple’s reproductive life. It would outlaw many forms of birth control, including the pill, IUD, and “morning after” drugs. It would require criminal investigation of any miscarriages deemed suspicious. It would ban potentially life-saving embryonic stem-cell research and common fertility treatments.

Amendment 62 rests on the absurd premise that a newly fertilized zygote is a full human person with an absolute right to biological life-support from a woman–regardless of her wishes and whatever the cost to her. The biological facts of pregnancy, in conjunction with an objective theory of rights, support a different view, namely that personhood and rights begin at birth. Colorado law should reflect those facts, not the Bible verses so often quoted (and creatively interpreted) by advocates of Amendment 62 and other “personhood” measures.

Read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.

Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha