Personhood Movement Continues to Divide Pro-Life Activists

A new legislative push in Wisconsin is the latest sign of a rift in the movement to limit abortion

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Kevin Lamarque / REUTERS

Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference at National Harbor, Md., on March 14, 2013

Heady after a string of recent antiabortion victories, Wisconsin Republican lawmakers are testing the unity of the pro-life movement with a new push for a personhood amendment. The effort is the latest in a series of campaigns dividing activists who oppose abortion.

The bill’s author, André Jacque, a Wisconsin state representative, said last week that just eight lawmakers have signed on to sponsor the amendment, which would grant human embryos the same civil rights as people and effectively ban abortion under the state constitution. It does not appear poised to move much further even in Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled legislature, which has enabled a number of recent restrictions on abortion.

The Wisconsin amendment has become a litmus test for antiabortion activists in the state, much like the growing rift nationwide between the nascent personhood movement and more established pro-life groups.

Bolstered by North Dakota’s approval of a personhood amendment this year, the personhood movement has gained a foothold among antiabortion activists, and is pushing pro-life advocates to adopt a more extreme message. Personhood advocates aim to outlaw all abortions, along with in vitro fertilization, stem-cell research and some types of birth control. Younger and more ideologically radical than traditional pro-lifers, movement activists view anything less than a total ban on abortion as a surrender.

“There are folks even in the pro-life movement who believe that there should be exceptions to abortion, so there is going to be some tension in the pro-life movement over personhood,” says Matt Sande, legislative director for Pro-Life Wisconsin, a pro-personhood group that pushed for the amendment. “The incremental approach is not working — the number of abortions is climbing over time. We need to end this. We need to end surgical abortion, without exception, without compromise, without apology. And that’s what personhood does.”

In Wisconsin, mainstream pro-lifers have been frustrated by the personhood movement’s lack of pragmatism and black-and-white view of what they see as complicated political, legal, biological and moral questions.

The state’s largest pro-life group, Wisconsin Right to Life, has opposed the recent personhood push, warning that the proposed amendment will waste money, time and potentially hurt the state’s pro-life efforts in the long run.

“I don’t want to talk about the personhood amendment anymore. I’m done talking about the personhood amendment,” says Sue Armacost, the legislative director of Wisconsin Right to Life. “This particular measure might sound good from a pro-life perspective, but it’s not going to save one single life.”

Pro-choice activists said the internal divisions among antiabortion groups have not made their efforts to ban abortion any less formidable. If anything, they said, the attention to personhood efforts has made other restrictions on abortion appear more acceptable to some.

“The bottom line is that they are trying to end all abortion,” says Julie Rikelman, litigation director for the Center for Reproductive Rights in New York City.

Of more than 10 states that have considered similar personhood measures, only one, North Dakota, has adopted an amendment, which now awaits final approval from the state’s voters in November 2014. And many pro-life activists agree that personhood laws do not pass muster with the Supreme Court’s past rulings. The Justices underscored this point in 2012, when they declined to hear an appeal of the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s decision to strike down a proposed personhood ballot initiative, which ruled the amendment “clearly unconstitutional.”

In Colorado and Mississippi, voters overwhelmingly rejected similar ballot initiatives to add personhood amendments to their state constitutions. Antiabortion activists have also failed to advance personhood-amendment ballot initiatives in Ohio, Nevada and Florida, and bills on personhood amendments have failed to pass statehouses in Virginia, Georgia and Washington.

In Iowa, state lawmakers are currently considering an amendment that would apply the word person to all humans from the moment of conception. As in Wisconsin, that vote would need to pass the state legislature twice before going to Iowa voters for ratification.

Republicans in Washington are also taking up the cause. In Congress, Georgia Representative Paul Broun has introduced an expansive personhood bill that would grant a “one-celled human zygote” all of the “constitutional attributes and privileges of personhood.”

The bill, first introduced in 2011 and reintroduced this year, has 38 Republican co-sponsors, including Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, the 2012 Republican vice-presidential nominee and who is often mentioned as a potential 2016 presidential candidate. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, another possible Republican 2016 contender, has introduced his own personhood legislation in the Senate, which he claims will end abortion in the U.S. “once and for all.”

Other potential 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls, including Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, have previously supported personhood measures, although Walker did not respond to TIME’s requests for comment on whether he would support the proposed amendment in his state.

Nationally, mainstream antiabortion groups like Americans United for Life and Susan B. Anthony List have distanced themselves from the personhood movement. Adopting the rhetoric of women’s health used by their pro-choice counterparts, these groups are recalibrating their strategies to target the 52% of Americans who think abortion should be legal in some, but not all, cases.

To that end, abortion opponents say their momentum is building, particularly in the wake of the horrific murder trial of Philadelphia abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, who performed illegal and occasionally gruesome late-term abortions in a filthy clinic dubbed the House of Horrors.

States enacted more than 75 new measures restricting abortion and reproductive health in the first six months of 2013, according to data from the Guttmacher Institute, the nonprofit sexual-health research organization.

“The pro-life movement is not one size fits all,” says Charmaine Yoest, head of Americans United for Life. “Most people want to see abortion restricted in some way, even if they don’t call themselves pro-life … We’re the ones occupying the middle ground.”