Fight over ‘fetal personhood’ reveals fractures in movement to outlaw abortion

Posted on: October 26th, 2011 by The American Independent 1 Comment
Though support for “fetal personhood” measures seems to be growing across the country, an examination of the movement’s detractors reveals an interesting personhood foe — pro-lifers who say the effort to ban abortion could backfire.

In some states, like Mississippi, personhood support is fairly widespread. In other states, like Florida, the initiatives have yet to make it to the ballot. But even among members of the anti-abortion community, support for amendments that aim to define a human being at the point of conception isn’t always black and white.

The New York Times highlighted the issue front-and-center this morning, in a piece that details the personhood movement in Mississippi. Both major candidates for governor have endorsed the state’s Amendment 26, as have both candidates for attorney general (one of whom is an incumbent). Mississippi’s lieutenant governor (one of the current gubernatorial candidates) is even co-chairman of the Yes on 26 campaign, though some argue that is only a political maneuver.

But National Right to Life, an anti-abortion organization that recently held its annual conference in Jacksonville, has not thrown its support behind the amendment, and says its passage could backfire in a big way. James Bopp Jr. (.pdf), general counsel of National Right to Life, told the Times that the amendment is “utterly futile” from a pro-life perspective. “From the standpoint of protecting unborn lives it’s utterly futile,” he said, “and it has the grave risk that if it did get to the Supreme Court, the court would write an even more extreme abortion policy.”

The Roman Catholic Church, which is staunchly pro-life, also refuses to back the amendment, saying it could ultimately harm efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards has voiced her concern that passage of Amendment 26 in Mississippi could generate more support for similar efforts in other states, but without support from anti-abortion groups, the personhood movement might not succeed everywhere.

In Florida, an effort to place a personhood amendment on the 2012 ballot has gone nowhere. According to the state Division of Elections, the group sponsoring the measure, Personhood Florida, has not yet recorded any valid signatures.

Last year, vocal pro-life state Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, told The Florida Independent that he didn’t believe Personhood Florida had “any traction” and stressed the importance of  staying “around the edges of the [abortion] issue.” Another pro-life advocate, Rep. Dennis Baxley, endorsed Personhood Florida, but was hesitant about whether the Legislature should take on the issue, saying that “incremental change” was a more productive path.

Personhood Wisconsin supporters are facing similar obstacles, as those who would seemingly be their allies are instead staunchly opposed to the group’s efforts. Wisconsin Right to Life has even published a position paper (.pdf) titled “Why a Personhood Amendment is Wrong for Wisconsin” in which the group argues the passage of such an amendment would “cancel out” the state’s current abortion ban. The state’s personhood affiliate has lashed out at the group, claiming that its legal reasoning for opposing a state personhood amendment is merely “speculative.” Personhood Wisconsin is currently seeking support in other areas, and specifically looking for a co-sponsor of its amendment in the Wisconsin general assembly.

Personhood critics argue that defining a human being from the moment of conception would ban abortion, but catch birth control and in vitro fertilization in the crosshairs.

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