A Republican Dilemma: The abortion bill died; personhood lingers

DENVER — Freshman Republican state Rep. Stephen Humphrey, an evangelical marriage counselor from small-town Severance, had no political angle when he introduced his anti-abortion personhood bill in January — which is part of the reason nine of eleven House Judiciary Committee members voted Wednesday to end what turned out to be the measure’s short news-making life at the Capitol.

Two staunch pro-life Republicans, Mark Waller and Bob Gardner, both from Colorado Springs, joined seven Democrats on the committee to oppose the bill. They applauded Humphrey for staking out high ground with his bill, but said they unfortunately would vote against it, given that federal law as it stands today made the bill unconstitutional.

“It may be the right moral position, and yet I have to live within the holdings we have and what can be done,” said Gardner. “That’s why I have to respectfully vote no on the bill.”

It’s another intense election year in swing-state Colorado, made more intense by the fact that it’s a midterm election year, where lower voter turnout will give the state’s minority Republican Party a better shot at winning back control of at least one of the legislative chambers.

But Colorado is a pro-choice state. Voters here have defeated proposed personhood amendments in landslides twice at the polls since 2008. In key swing-districts, where registered women outnumber registered men and the number of independent voters essentially matches the numbers of Republican and Democratic voters, a bill like Humphrey’s is a political liability. The bill, HB 1133, would have granted legal status to fertilized human eggs, outlawed abortion in almost all cases — including cases of rape and incest — ended much fertility research and treatment in the state and put doctors at risk of felony convictions for treating myriad complications of pregnancy and childbirth.

“It’s a mystery how [this bill] serves Republican interests — to have a bill that most centrist voters perceive as extreme and that is quickly killed,” state politics analyst Eric Sondermann said when the bill was introduced. “The Colorado GOP has a significant opportunity this year. But it’s an open question as to whether Colorado Republicans have the discipline and ‘strategery’ to restrain their most strident voices and capitalize on the opening.”

Although Republican lawmakers, including House leadership, signed on in double digits to co-sponsor Humphrey’s bill, something changed in the two months since it was introduced.

None of the co-sponsors came to Tuesday’s hearing. Only four people altogether testified in favor of the bill. Yet dozens of pro-choice activists held a press conference prior to the hearing to rail against it and many of those lined up to argue against it from the witness stand.

Humphrey saw the writing on the wall. He carefully read his introductory and closing remarks. He paused to turn over questions before answering them.

Waller and Gardner were Humphrey’s greatest defenders among the committee members, but they also seemed to be looking over his head, in effect, preparing for a play that was developing downfield. The two men are high-profile veteran legislators. Gardner is serving in his fourth and, by law, last term in the House. Waller is running for attorney general. They seemed determined to make something out of the doomed bill, even if it meant redrafting it in ways the sponsor wouldn’t support.

At one point in the hearing, Waller asked witness Kevin Paul, a lawyer for Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, if he could confirm that Colorado was “one of the few states where people can get abortions all the way through the third trimester.”

“Colorado has chosen not to regulate the patient-physician relationship and so has not put a limit on when the procedure can take place,” Paul answered.

“It’s a simple yes or no question,” said Waller.

“It is not so simple,” said Paul. “Because of the violence and threats made against doctors performing these procedures, they may not be advertising their services in states other than the few.”

Gardner said nothing during the hearing. But, in the end, he offered an amendment that would have outlawed late-term abortion.

Committee Chair Daniel Kagan, a Cherry Hills Democrat, said the bill explicitly aimed to outlaw abortion “from the moment of conception to birth,” so the amendment was partly redundant and partly outside a legislative rule that bills must address single not multiple subjects. It was clear that Kagan was not going to allow a vote on the amendment, sparing Democrats from having to officially oppose it.

Waller objected strenuously. Gardner turned red in the face.

“You won’t take a vote. This is about the tyranny of the majority,” he said.

It was telling that, in a hearing on a bill concerning a subject as emotional as abortion, the most heated exchange of the afternoon turned on a procedural point.

Another amendment offered by Republicans aimed to alter the language to define life not “from the moment of conception” but from “the moment of implantation” on the uterus wall. The thinking was that the change would eliminate many of the ambiguities brought up during testimony that fueled persuasive objections to the bill, like what doctors should do in the case of ectopic pregnancies, where the fertilized egg has attached to somewhere outside the uterus, causing great risk to the mother’s health.

But Humphrey opposed all the amendments. He said they would change the purpose of the measure. It was a personhood bill, after all. Either a fertilized egg is a person or it isn’t. He took the defeat of his bill in stride, with what seemed like the long vision of a true believer secure in the knowledge that fighting for his convictions mattered as much as victory.

But the arguments made by the Republican lawmakers against the bill as plainly unconstitutional may complicate a politically charged effort to land another personhood initiative on this year’s ballot. Supporters of the so-called Brady Amendment have already gathered 140,000 signatures. The secretary of state only has to certify roughly 90,000 of those signatures as valid in order for the initiative to make the ballot.

Opponents’ ads featuring Gardner and Waller’s objections to Humphrey’s bill may well spur moderate Republican voters to join Democrats and independents in voting against it this fall.

[ Image of Rep. Stephen Humphrey testifying Tuesday by Tessa Cheek. ]