Fresh off a thumping at the polls in Mississippi, supporters of a constitutional amendment that would legally define a fertilized egg as a person are back for a third try with Colorado voters.
On Monday, Arvada-based Personhood USA unveiled a measure that’s been substantially rewritten from ballot initiatives Colorado voters shot down by wide margins in the last two general elections.
Under the new version, backers say, only certain kinds of birth control would be illegal — the so-called “abortion pill” RU486 would be outlawed but not the more commonly taken birth-control pill, Personhood backers said — and, under most circumstances, miscarriages would be above the law.
The rewritten measure would still ban abortion in cases of rape and incest, stating the prohibition like this: “No innocent child created through rape or incest shall be killed for the crime of his or her father.”
The proposal’s sponsors said the more detailed language might prevent opponents from fielding “lies and scare tactics” against the measure and keep the debate focused on the more fundamental question about when life begins.
The last two times personhood was on the Colorado ballot, said Personhood USA co-founder Keith Mason at a Capitol press conference on Monday, it was subject to withering attacks from Planned Parenthood, which he termed “the largest and wealthiest abortion provider in the United States”
But not this time, Mason predicted. “The new personhood language prevents those falsehoods by making it absolutely clear what the amendment can and cannot do, while still protecting every child from his or her earliest stages,” he said.
Old foes weren’t buying it.
The president of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains said she was confident Colorado voters won’t get fooled — again — by the revamped measure.
“Colorado voters spoke loud and clear in the 2008 and 2010 elections when they voted down the so called ‘personhood’ amendments by a 3-to-1 margin each time,” said local Planned Parenthood CEO Vicki Cowart on Monday. “No means no, yet Personhood USA and Personhood Colorado continue to ignore the wishes of Colorado voters. Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains will, for the third time since 2008, work with our over 90 coalition partners to educate Colorado voters about this initiative which aims to ban abortion in all circumstances.”
A Democratic state lawmaker — the only licensed physician in the Legislature — said the amendment’s backers weren’t being straight with voters.
“This is just more of the same from Republicans who want to take away women’s choices while leaving many mothers and families without the support they need,” said state Sen. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver, in a statement on Monday. “If this was really about protecting kids and families, we shouldn’t be slashing programs that help vulnerable mothers and kids. These groups have never been honest that their intentions are really about a single-minded effort to dictate the choices women can make.”
A spokeswoman for Personhood USA said her organization is laying out a clear choice for voters. “The more people that learn the truth about this amendment, the more they’re eager to protect all human life,” said Jennifer Mason, adding, “We definitely are making progress.”
State Sen. Kevin Lundberg, a Berthoud Republican who supported previous personhood attempts, said he would again be backing the ballot measure.
“It’s consistent with mainstream Republicans to defend life, and this is an issue that really comes down to the question of what does that really mean,” Lundberg told The Colorado Statesman.
Colorado GOP Chairman Ryan Call declined to predict whether the state party would back the measure, noting that an endorsement would have to make it through a multi-step resolution process. He acknowledged, however, that the issue could split Republicans.
“The Republican Party has long had as an important component of the party’s platform the protection of life and the unborn, but certainly there is often a difference of opinion within our party on how best to advance that cause,” said Call. He added that he’s confident Republicans will unite around concerns over jobs and the economy.
Personhood supporters said they’ve learned lessons from previous campaigns and believe voters are moving in their direction.
One of the drafters of the new amendment, Gualberto GarciaJones, claimed momentum is on the side of his movement.
“Between 2008 and 2010, we saw a tremendous increase — 51,000 additional people voted for life. In 2012, we expect to continue this trend — new language and sponsors will continue to increase the odds in our favor,” GarciaJones said in a release.
But that’s not what Colorado voter records show.
The measure, dubbed Amendment 48 on the 2008 state ballot, received 585,561 “yes” votes against 1,605,978 “no” votes, going down 73-27 percent. Two years later, when it appeared on the ballot as Amendment 62, the personhood question got 509,062 “yes” votes and 1,218,490 “no” votes in the lower-turnout election, or roughly 71-29 percent.
Mississippi voters rejected that state’s Amendment 26 earlier this month on a vote of 476,178 against and 346,699 for the measure, or 58-42 percent, even though polls showed the initiative passing with 80 percent support just weeks before the election.
It’s an issue fraught with peril for politicians on the same ballot.
In last year’s Colorado election, Republican U.S. Senate nominee Ken Buck threw his support behind the amendment during the GOP primary but later softened his stance and withdrew his endorsement, claiming he hadn’t fully understood the legal effects of the measure.
Nonetheless, opponents hammered Buck with ads tying him to the personhood amendment — along with a criticism of his stance that abortion should be banned in all cases, including after rape and incest — and helped swing the election by a narrow margin to the Democratic incumbent, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet.
Already, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is feeling some heat over the question.
U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, a Denver Democrat, took some swings at Romney in her statement blasting the revived personhood initiative this week.
“This is an extreme and radical agenda,” DeGette said. “And those pushing this agenda seem to want to ignore that Coloradans have already voted down such an initiative twice. As does Mitt Romney, who recently committed to supporting a personhood amendment despite previous promises to the contrary.”
DeGette, a co-chair of the House Pro-Choice Caucus, pointed to Romney’s evolving positions on abortion in her attack on the GOP candidate’s stance.
“Though Romney once said, ‘let me make this very clear: I will preserve and protect a woman’s right to choose’ and said that in his ‘heart of hearts’ rape victims ‘should have the option of having emergency contraception,’ he now supports taking away those rights and protections he recently ‘believed’ in.”
State Democratic Party Chairman Rick Palacio tried to hang the personhood proposal around the necks of Republicans for “pushing an extreme social agenda,” though few had publicly endorsed the proposal by press time. He also hit Romney both for supporting the measure and for espousing different positions on the question over time.
“Mitt Romney and his fellow Republican Presidential candidates should know by now that pandering to the extremists in their Tea Party base doesn’t appeal to the average Coloradan,” Palacio said in a statement issued on Monday. “And after the latest version of Romney said he ‘absolutely’ supports the radical efforts of Personhood USA and other extreme groups, he will have a lot to explain to Colorado voters. Then again, we should probably expect yet another Romney flip-flop.”
Colorado’s Republican congressional delegation was mostly silent on the measure this week. U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn is “a supporter of personhood,” according to an email sent by his spokeswoman, but press aides for U.S. Reps. Cory Gardner and Scott Tipton didn’t respond to inquiries from The Statesman and a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman said his boss was out of the country and unavailable for comment.
(Additional reporting by Peter Marcus)