ELECTION 08: Colo. 'personhood' amendment would answer question Roe posed

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is part of a special series of stories focusing on the election that Baptist Press will run between now and Nov. 4. Stories will run on Wednesdays and Fridays.

DENVER (BP)--When U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun authored the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion nationwide, he acknowledged that if the definition of "personhood is established" to include the unborn, then the case for abortion rights "collapses" because the unborn's "right to life would then be guaranteed" by the Constitution.

It's been 35 years since that infamous decision was handed down, and on Nov. 4 voters in Colorado will decide whether to add an amendment to the state constitution stating that "the term 'person' or 'persons' shall include any human being from the moment of conception." It will be Amendment 48 on the ballot but is more commonly known as the Personhood Amendment, and it is the first time in U.S. history that citizens will vote on such a proposal.

The amendment takes aim at Roe without even mentioning the word "abortion" and marks a new strategy in the nationwide abortion debate.

"We need a personhood amendment because our laws are not clearly defined," Kristi Burton, the 21-year-old who came up with the idea for the amendment, told Baptist Press. "The word 'person' in our constitution has never been defined and because of that, there's a whole group of people in Colorado who aren't protected. And, certainly that would be the unborn child."

The amendment, Burton believes, could be a turning point in the pro-life movement.

"People from other states have called us quite a bit and are very excited about this perspective on the pro-life issue because it puts a positive side to it rather than only discussing the negativity of abortion," she said. "We're talking about the positive value of human life and how simply because you're a human being, you have intrinsic value and intrinsic worth as a person. Everyone is tired of life being cheapened in our society, so when we have an issue where we can talk about why we should value human life, it's a positive and people are getting excited about that new message."

The amendment has forced pro-choicers to answer questions they'd rather avoid, Burton and other Amendment 48 supporters believe. Asked by a reporter during a Sept. 8 TV debate when a person gets legal protections, Fofi Mendez, a spokeswoman for the campaign to defeat the amendment, responded, "In the state of Colorado they acquire those legal rights when they are living and breathing and walking around like you and I are." Mendez' answer immediately drew criticism from her debate opponent, Burton, who said the definition didn't include room for many disabled people.

A petition drive put the amendment on the ballot. The Colorado secretary of state said an estimated 103,000 signatures were valid, considerably more than the 76,000 that were required. The group behind the amendment -- Colorado for Equal Rights -- submitted 130,000 signatures, with 500-plus churches playing a large role by circulating petitions. Burton says churches will need to "play a very important role" if the amendment is to pass. And, if it passes, a lawsuit questioning its constitutionality almost certainly will be filed by opponents.

The proposal could impact not only abortion law but other laws, both sides say. For example, Burton points out that Colorado is one of only a handful of states without a fetal homicide law -- a law that would make it a crime to kill an unborn child during an assault on a pregnant woman. That law would have made a difference earlier this year, when a Colorado judge ruled that a 24-year-old man could not be charged with fetal homicide because under state law a fetus is not a person. The man, Logan Lage, allegedly was involved in a high-speed getaway from state troopers when his vehicle collided head-on with another vehicle driven by a woman who was eight and a half months pregnant. The woman was taken to the hospital where the baby was delivered and lived for about an hour before dying. The judge ruled that the baby was not a person at the time of the crash -- a ruling that would have been a different one had Colorado had a Personhood Amendment, Burton says.

Opponents of Amendment 48 say the proposal could outlaw certain types of birth control as well as some fertility treatments, such as in-vitro fertilization (IVF). Supporters say that's a stretch.

"It doesn't really outlaw anything," Michael Norton, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund and a supporter of the amendment, told BP. "It simply defines, for the purposes of any statute that uses the word 'person,' what a person is.... I imagine that the attorney general would have to become involved in giving guidance to state agencies on what changes or modifications to procedures under current state laws might be required."

Said Burton, "Those side issues will be dealt with later on by the democratic process -- like any other issue in our society. This is not a birth control ban bill, and yet they act like it is."

The issue, she said, should focus squarely on abortion and the unborn. Amendment 48 has garnered some attention worldwide and has the support of Gerald Wilberforce, the great-great grandson of 19th-century British abolitionist William Wilberforce, the subject of the 2007 movie "Amazing Grace."

"We believe someone -- some state -- needs to pass a law to answer that question that Roe vs. Wade posed," she said. "If personhood is established, it does put a new issue before the abortion debate. Today, medical science can prove that at the moment of conception that that's a human being. Thirty-five years ago maybe it couldn't prove that conclusively, and now it can."


Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press. For more information about Amendment 48, visit www.ColoradoForEqualRights.com.

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