DENVER—Antiabortion activists in several states are promoting constitutional amendments that would define life as beginning at conception, which could effectively outlaw all abortions and some birth control methods.
The campaigns to grant "personhood" to fertilized eggs, giving them the same legal protections as human beings, come as the nation in January marks the 35th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. During those three decades, abortion foes have succeeded in imposing a variety of restrictions, such as waiting periods and parental notification for minors. But there are still about 1.3 million abortions a year in the U.S.
Antiabortion movement: An article in Friday's Section A on proposed ballot initiatives to give legal rights to fertilized eggs incorrectly stated that the contraceptive sponge prevents fertilized eggs from implanting in the uterus. The sponge prevents spermatozoa from fertilizing an egg and would not be at risk of being banned should the initiatives become law. —
Some activists say they are fed up with incremental steps -- and are not interested in waiting years, or possibly decades, for a more conservative court to revisit Roe. Instead, they are out to change the legal status of embryos in hopes of forcing the Supreme Court to ban abortion.
"The concept that we're going to elect judges who will change everything has failed," said Brian Rohrbough, a former president of Colorado Right to Life. "The logical thing is to start with personhood. . . . It's the only legitimate tactic that does not involve a compromise."
Ever since abortion was legalized, antiabortion groups have pushed for a federal Human Life Amendment that would define life as beginning at conception. One of the reasons the court gave for legalizing the procedure is that the fetus is not legally a person. Abortion opponents think that by granting human status to embryos they will destroy the legal foundation of the right to abortion. Every year since the decision, members of Congress have introduced a bill to do that, but they never got anywhere.
Now a grass-roots movement is underway at the state level to undermine Roe vs. Wade.
The Colorado Supreme Court last week cleared the way for advocates to begin collecting signatures to place a personhood amendment on the state's 2008 ballot. Activists in Michigan, Mississippi and Montana are gearing up to gather signatures as well. In January, the Georgia General Assembly will consider placing a constitutional amendment on its 2008 ballot.
The initiatives face several stiff challenges.
For the most part, the campaigns are run by local activists, with little support or funding from big national antiabortion groups. Similar efforts have failed in the past: Proponents in Michigan could not collect enough signatures to put a personhood measure on the ballot in 2006. The Georgia proposal stalled in the Legislature this year.
Any amendments that make it to the ballot will be voted on by a public that has expressed consistent support for allowing at least some abortions, especially during the first trimester, which is when 90% of U.S. abortions occur.
In South Dakota, a deeply conservative state, voters last year resoundingly rejected a ballot measure that would have outlawed virtually all abortions.
Even if the amendments pass, it could take years of legal challenges before they reach the Supreme Court.
Still, national abortion-rights groups consider the current wave of amendment campaigns a legitimate threat.
They worry that the language of the initiatives might mislead voters. In Colorado, for instance, voters will be asked whether the constitution should "include any human being from the moment of fertilization as 'person' . . . in those provisions of the Colorado Constitution relating to inalienable rights, equality of justice, and due process of law." The amendment is being promoted by a group called Colorado for Equal Rights.
"This type of language may be scarier than an outright ban," said Belinda Bulger, deputy legal director for NARAL Pro-Choice America. "First, because it can be hard for people to understand what it's doing, and second, because it would be far further reaching."
Abortion-rights advocates tried to block the Colorado ballot initiative by claiming the language would confuse voters, but the state Supreme Court ruled 7-0 that the initiative was acceptable as written. The measure's proponents must collect 76,000 signatures in the next six months to qualify for the general election ballot.
If successful -- and upheld by the courts -- the amendments could outlaw certain forms of birth control that prevent fertilized eggs from implanting in the uterus, such as the birth control pill or contraceptive sponge. They also could ban or restrict common fertility treatments, such as in vitro, in which multiple eggs are fertilized, but only some are introduced into the mother's womb.