Personhood initiative lining up friends and foes

A version of the anti-abortion initiative soundly defeated by Colorado voters in 2008 is making its way to the 2010 ballot, this time reworked as an “egg-as-a-person” initiative.

This new version would move the legal definition of a person further back into the reproductive cycle, granting cells the full spectrum of citizen rights. Opposition groups, including Colorado genetic and fertilization researchers, say the law would have spiraling consequences, that it would put women at risk and freeze current work in medicine and reproduction.

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Colorado Right to Life and Personhood USA, the groups behind proposed Initiative 25, are undeterred by the fact that Coloradans voted against the test-run amendment last year by a margin of three to one. The new amendment is even farther reaching, moving the initial marker for the beginning of life from “fertilization” to “the beginning of the biological development of a human being.”

Personhood Colorado Director and the initiative proponent Gualberto Garcia Jones told The Colorado Independent that the change was made “to be more comprehensive in our definition of a person” and was not done to make it more appealing to voters.

“It’s intended to account for human beings who may be created through asexual reproduction in laboratories and used as raw material for research, organs, or stem cells. Fertilization would not have properly applied to asexually reproduced humans, but even asexually reproduced human beings have a definite biological beginning,” Jones explained.

“Over half-a-million Coloradans voted for the personhood initiative in 2008,” Jones said in a press conference announcing the campaign. “Their votes acknowledging the God-given right to life of the pre-born revolutionizes the pro-life movement and encourage us toward victory. ”

Science stoppage

Johnathan Van Blerkom, professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at the University of Colorado in Boulder, said if the personhood initiative were passed and upheld, it would have negative consequences for those not only involved in embryonic stem cell research but also for individuals looking to participate in in-vitro fertilization programs.

“To begin with [embryonic] stem cell research would stop,” Van Blerkom said. “There would be no research in genetics in the causes of the origins congenital diseases that occur in humans, how to fix them, how to protect them early.”

“You would find in this state, myself included, that embryo research would freeze. If there were criminal penalties or you were lumped together with abortionists for looking at embryos that are discarded because they are abnormal and you want to know why they are abnormal … no one is going to do it.”

Van Blerkom who works at a fertilization clinic as well, said that in-vitro fertilization would likely end in the state. He explained that the very process of fertilization can kill the embryo if more than one sperm gets into the egg. He said legal liability would loom over all procedures.

“It’s criminal liability. So would any program want to freeze an embryo in the state of Colorado? If the embryos die, as they frequently do when they are thawed, is that your responsibility? Is it an act of God? An act of science?”

Women’s rights

Monica McCafferty, media relations specialist for Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, said the slightly modified language does nothing to protect the rights and safety of mothers.

“The new initiative has the same goal [as Amendment 48], to ban all abortion even in the cases of rape, incest, or when the life of the woman is in danger.”

McCafferty said that the language is vague and misleading but the ramifications are clear. “This would have huge implications.”

The legislation would end women’s right to choose in Colorado but would also hamper their ability to take many forms of birth control. McCafferty said the law would create major government intrusions into private lives.

“Coloradans have said time and again that they don’t want government or the courts in their lives when it comes making these personal private decisions.”

Jones frankly agreed. He said the goal of the amendment was to provide a child in the womb with due process and equality of justice.

“If passed, the Personhood Amendment would regain the state’s right to extend protections broader than those granted by the U.S. Constitution, and it would help transform our current decadent culture which currently values a person’s utility instead of their innate worth as a human being.”

But Jones didn’t agree that the language was vague.

“We have proposed a very simple, level-headed definition of what a person is. Namely, a person is a human being from the very beginning of his or her biological development.”

During the 2008 debate over the personhood initiative, Jessica Berg, professor of law and bioethics at Case Western Reserve University, told NPR that fertilized eggs in fertility clinics might need to be counted on the census and that pregnant women presumably could use the high-occupancy traffic lanes. There are absurdities that grow out of this kind of thinking, she said.

“If you don’t know you’re pregnant and you drink or do something dangerous — or you do something problematic very early on, and you’re in Colorado or even passing through Colorado — have you committed child abuse and endangerment?”

Power politics

Asked why voters did not support the initiative in the past Jones told The Colorado Independent that the initiative fell victim to power politics.

“We realize that there are very large political and corporate interests that will do everything in their power to twist this simple proposition into ludicrous scenarios. We’ll be more aggressive this time around in addressing those scare tactics.”

He said that with groups such as Planned Parenthood heading up a coalition of groups to oppose the initiative — last year’s coalition was called Protect Families, Protect Choices — the “pro-abortionists have almost unlimited funds.”

“You see, killing babies pays. Saving babies doesn’t.”

Jones said Planned Parenthood had taken in more than $1 billion in 2008.

RH Reality Check recently reported, however, that anti-abortion rights groups are not hurting for funds.

Wendy Norris, former editor for The Colorado Independent, wrote that personhood groups have brought in almost $58 million in donations. The American Life League, an organization where Jones recently served as legislative director, has brought in more than $35 million since 2003.

National drive

Emilie Ailts, executive director of Denver-based NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado, said that the initiatives are part of a nationwide attempt to advance personhood legislation. She said that Personhood USA initially had hoped to introduce legislation in 29 states but that Personhood USA now seems ready to mount grassroots efforts in only nine states.

Aits said that the initiative would change the Colorado Constitution in 20,000 different places.

“People can not even prognosticate how once it was fully implemented how it would affect peoples lives. It would impact so many laws.” She said it would impact not only fertilization and stem cell research but also access to many forms of birth control in the state.

NARAL, like Planned Parenthood and the Republican Majority for Choice banded together with the Colorado Bar Association and 90 other groups, many which do not normally deal with reproductive issues, to create Protect Families, Protect Choices, Aits said. Like last year, she expects the same groups to oppose the measure should it make its way onto the ballot.

“Everyone saw this as something so draconian in 2008 that it would have very negative impacts on the lives of women and their families in the state of Colorado.”

McCafferty said that while Protect Families, Protect Choices worked diligently to oppose last years personhood initiative, it was the Colorado voters who made the decision to reject the amendment.

Jones said he is confident his measure will pass.

“With so much money comes a lot of influence, earned and bought media, and friends in high places. Against this, personhood only has one thing, the truth. The amazing thing is that it is only a matter of time before we prevail.”

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Joseph Boven

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