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.

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