By Russell Shaw
Like a knight of the Middle Ages questing for the Holy Grail, like a medical researcher seeking a cancer cure, like a big league pitcher hoping to put together back-to-back perfect games -- like these and others who pursue great goals, some pro-lifers dream of ending abortion by one simple step: getting the law to recognize the unborn as persons, with all the legal rights of personhood, including the right to life.
From a pro-life point of view, it's a great idea. In confirmation of that, those who support it can cite no less an authority than the late Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, the man who wrote the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade.
In that 1973 ruling legalizing abortion throughout the United States, Blackmun acknowledged that if the personhood of the unborn is accepted as a matter of law, the legal case for abortion "collapses" because "the fetus' right to life is then guaranteed" by the equal protection and due process clauses of the 14th Amendment.
But how to accomplish it? That's the question personhood amendments to the federal and state constitutions are supposed to answer.
A proposed personhood amendment to the U.S. Constitution, advocated by a national organization called the American Life League, declares the right to life to be "the paramount and most fundamental right of a person." Then it adds:
"With respect to the right to life guaranteed to persons by the 5th and 14th articles of amendment to the Constitution, the word 'person' applies to all human beings; irrespective of age, health, function, physical or mental dependency or method of reproduction, from the beginning of their biological development."
Besides the American Life League, the cause also is championed by a recently formed group called Personhood USA.
Not surprisingly, personhood amendments are opposed by pro-abortion groups, who deride them as "egg-as-person measures." The issue also has split the pro-life movement, with some pro-life groups judging the amendment a bad idea that distracts attention from more immediate and achievable goals -- such as keeping government-funded abortion out of a national health care plan.
However that may be, most current activity relating to the amendment is taking place at the state level.
In Florida, supporters began efforts on Sept. 18 to collect the 676,811 signatures needed to put an amendment on the ballot there next year. Colorado backers launched their drive to secure the 76,047 signatures required in that state in August. Similar efforts are under way in Mississippi, Montana, Oregon, California and some other states.
Early approval of an amendment anyplace is probably unlikely. In Colorado, a ballot initiative on the amendment was rejected last year by a margin of more than 3-1.
Supporters aren't deterred by that. They see what they're doing as a way of keeping the personhood issue alive and visible, educating people on the subject, and giving grassroots pro-lifers something to rally around.
The co-chairman of the Colorado campaign, Gualberto Garcia Jones, describes the pro-amendment campaign as "a calling to educate people."
Noting that the amendment received half-a-million votes in the state last year, Garcia called that outcome "a great victory," and said, "We're looking for making that number a little bit bigger this time."
Political observers say the state has moved rightward since then. According to veteran Washington Post political writer Dan Balz, Colorado "remains a purple state politically, especially given the size of the unaffiliated vote that can shift with the tides."
Backers of the amendment also take encouragement from an Aug. 20 ruling by U.S. District Judge Karen Schreier upholding a provision of an informed consent law -- not a constitutional amendment -- adopted by the South Dakota Legislature in 2005.
The measure requires doctors to tell women seeking abortions "that the abortion will terminate the life of a whole, separate, unique, living human being." The law was challenged by Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.
In the debate before the vote on the amendment last year in Colorado, the Catholic bishops of the state declined to take sides on the proposal. A spokeswoman said the bishops considered being either for or against the measure to be a prudential judgment that Catholics had to make for themselves."We commend the goal of this effort to end abortion," Jennifer Kraska of the Colorado Catholic Conference said.
"Individual Catholics may choose to work for its passage. At the same time, we recognize that other people committed to the sanctity of life have raised serious questions about this specific amendment's timing and content."
But in Oregon, one of the states where pro-amendment activity is taking place this year, Bishop Robert F. Vasa of Baker recently spoke up strongly on behalf of giving legal recognition to the personhood of the unborn.
Writing in his diocesan newspaper, Bishop Vasa said personhood isn't a matter of religious belief but "the acceptance of a biological and scientific fact. That which is essential to the definition of a human being is already present from the moment that human ovum is fertilized by human sperm."
In the wake of Roe v. Wade, he added, the state of the law in regard to the unborn rests upon "a faulty legal fiction ... that human beings are not really human beings unless the Supreme Court passes judgment on them and declares them to be so."
Harry Blackmun would have understood.
There are efforts under way now in a number of states to collect significant signatures to get a referendum on personhood amendments on fall ballots.
Here is a list of them, according to data from the American Life League and Personhood USA:
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.