The XX Factor

Personhood: Coming to a City Near You

A pro-life activist holds a sign in favor of personhood.  

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

“Personhood”—the granting of legal rights and protection from the moment a sperm penetrates an egg—has once more failed to pass any popular, statewide votes. This midterm it not only failed for the third time in Colorado, where backers tried to disguise Amendment 67 as a fetal homicide law, but also in North Dakota, where supporters attempted to portray that state’s proposed personhood measure as just a constitutional change to strengthen anti-abortion state restrictions already in place.

However, despite yet another election proving that voters overwhelmingly reject personhood when it offered as a ballot amendment (personhood amendments have now lost in every one of their five times on the ballot), advocates remain undaunted. Their new tactic? Bringing personhood to a city near you.

While North Dakota and Colorado were busy pushing for yet another statewide voter referendum, groups like the Personhood Alliance, a “life at conception” pro-life group formed by Dan Becker, president of Georgia Right to Life, intend to launch a “ground-breaking campaign” for 2015 that will introduce “pro-life ballot initiatives at the county and municipal level.”

“This represents the first time local voters will be able to approve no exceptions Personhood protection for all innocent human beings through their municipal ballots,” Becker said in a press release in late October.

City-by-city abortion bans have been tried before and have been so far unsuccessful. The most well-known was the attempt in 2013 to ban abortion after 20 weeks postfertilization in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a back-door attempt to stop one of the country’s last three third-trimester abortion clinics from being able to assist pregnant patients who needed later terminations. Earlier in 2013 the Bakersfield, California, city council considered its own Human Life Amendment that would have made abortion illegal within its city limits, where there just happens to be a clinic. The ordinance did not pass because council members said they didn’t want to deal with the legal costs that would come from being forced to defend it in courts, but at least one city council candidate this election ran on a platform of bringing the debate back to the council for reconsideration.

By moving to a city-by-city strategy, anti-abortion activists can target just the places where actual abortions are being performed. There, at the clinic doors, they hope they might find some moderate success, since their statewide plans to pass personhood have been nothing but one failure after another.

Final note: It wasn’t all bad for the anti-abortion movement last night. Amendment 1, the Tennessee initiative that removes the right to an abortion from the state constitution, passed with a five-point margin. However, that amendment does not grant legal protections to fertilized eggs, and in today’s abortion rights battle that’s sadly still considered a victory for pro-choicers.