Everybody knows that Roe v. Wade created a national right to kill your unborn children, and everybody knows that the #1 item on the pro-lifer To-Do list is “Overturn Roe v. Wade.” However, once Roe is overturned, we’ll still have a lot of work to do. Abortion will be a state issue. Unfortunately, most state courts would gladly recreate Roe v. Wade at the state level, using the state constitution to magic abortion rights back into existence. Some have already done this. Meanwhile, although many states provide some legal protections to unborn children, these protections are not considered inalienable human rights; they could be completely repealed with a single legislative act.
The “Personhood Amendment” movement attempts to solve both those problems at once by a deliciously simple method: citizens pass state constitutional amendments which simply affirm that all human beings are legal persons, who have basic human rights that must be respected by everyone. In fact, most Personhood amendments are only one sentence long. My favorite so far is Nevada’s proposal: “In the great state of Nevada, the term 'person' applies to every human being.”
When you explain the pro-life position that way, it’s actually pretty popular. Most people, even pro-choicers, realize that human life begins at conception, and, barring extreme circumstances, most of them want to protect it. Some of these amendments have done very well in initial polling.
Planned Parenthood and its billion-dollar propaganda machine have come up with a Big Lie to sink Personhood: they say that recognizing unborn rights would make it illegal to ever end a pregnancy, that it would ban in vitro fertilization, and that it would even outlaw some forms of contraception. Most people support IVF and contraception, and even Catholics believe that mothers may humanely end their pregnancies when absolutely necessary, so the Big Lie works. By the end of Mississippi’s campaign, even highly respected pro-lifers like Gov. Haley Barbour were expressing doubts over Personhood’s so-called “unintended consequences.” According to polling by Personhood USA, more than half the people who voted against Personhood in Mississippi did so because they’d swallowed some part of the Big Lie. If not for that, Personhood could easily have won 65% or even 75% of the vote – but Personhood supporters were outspent and outgunned.
Like all successful Big Lies, there’s a grain of truth here that puts us at a disadvantage. Personhood would not ban IVF, but it would ban the common IVF practice of producing eight or more embryos, killing seven of them, and implanting the survivor. Personhood would not ban necessary medical interventions to save a mother’s life, but it would force doctors to treat the baby as a patient, not a tumor. Personhood would not ban any contraceptives, but it would ban abortifacients – and there is still a live debate about whether IUDs and Plan B are abortifacients. Explaining these distinctions takes time, and there’s an old political saying: “When you’re playing defense, you’re losing.”
Nationally, the Personhood movement’s response to the Big Lie has been to continue trying to educate voters. But that’s not working. Just last month, a major Colorado politician, Rep. Cory Gardner, jumped ship on Personhood after years supporting it. The reason he cited? The Big Lie. "The fact that it restricts contraception, it was not the right position," he said. Ohio’s amendment didn’t even make the ballot. We can’t outspend or out-organize Planned Parenthood; the abortion lobby has more spending money than the entire GDP of several small countries.
I have a suggestion. Let’s stop fighting the Big Lie on Planned Parenthood’s turf. On the airwaves, the Web, and in newspapers, they can silence us under an avalanche of deceit. Instead, let’s refute the Big Lie right in the text of the amendment. Then we don’t have to argue, we don’t have to explain, we don’t have to spend. We just have to point to the text the voters will see on Election Day. Something like this could go a long way toward putting voters at ease about Personhood:
Section 1: All human beings are persons.
Section 2: Nothing in this amendment shall be construed to restrict in vitro fertilization, contraception, or any other medical treatment, unless it is shown to intentionally kill a living person.
This would take the initiative away from Planned Parenthood. They’d still fight, of course, because they need to do lots and lots of abortions or they’ll go out of business, but suddenly they would be the ones on defense. “Why can’t we do IVF in a way that doesn’t kill people?” the public would ask. And, “Wait, are you saying that those ‘contraceptives’ you sold me actually cause abortions?” We’d still have an uphill battle, with lots of difficult questions, but, by returning the debate to the actual effects of Personhood instead of made-up Planned Parenthood bogeymen, Personhood could become a viable part of the pro-life movement’s strategy for the post-Roe world.
James Heaney is an intern for Aleteia.