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Abortion foes try to establish legal ‘personhood’ for fetuses

Push to get issue on ballots across nation next year

By Robin Abcarian
Los Angeles Times / September 29, 2009

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LOS ANGELES - It is one of the enduring questions of religion and science, and lately, of US politics: When does a fertilized egg become a person?

Abortion foes, tired of a profusion of laws that limit but do not abolish abortion, are trying to answer the question in a way that they hope could put an end to legalized abortion.

Across the country, they have revived failed efforts to amend state constitutions to declare that “personhood’’ - and all rights accorded human beings - begins at conception.

From Florida to California, abortion foes are gathering signatures, pressing state legislators, and raising money for campaigns to place so-called personhood measures on ballots in 2010.

In Louisiana, a class of Catholic high school students is lobbying state legislators as part of a classroom civics exercise.

“We have big and small efforts going on in 30 states right now,’’ said Keith Mason, a Colorado-based abortion opponent and cofounder of the group Personhood USA. “Our goal is to activate the population.’’

Critics deride the effort as the “egg-as-person’’ movement and say it threatens stem-cell research, in-vitro fertilization, and some kinds of birth control, including intrauterine devices and pills. They say that Americans will reject it as a government intrusion into their privacy.

“It’s a back-door abortion ban,’’ said Ted Miller, spokesman for NARAL Pro-Choice America, which has worked with Planned Parenthood and other abortion rights groups to defeat such measures.

For years, polls have shown that most Americans support abortion in some circumstances. Fewer than a fifth believe it should be outlawed in all circumstances. A slightly larger number say that abortion should be unrestricted.

Abortion foes, dismayed by the election of a president who supports abortion rights, and an increasingly pro-choice Congress, received a psychological lift earlier this year when the Gallup Poll, for the first time since it began asking the question, found that a slight majority of Americans identified themselves as “pro-life.’’

Proponents of “personhood’’ measures root their hopes in the language of the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, in which Justice Harry Blackmun wrote for the majority that a fetus is not legally a person.

Establishing “personhood’’ would undermine the rationale for legal abortion, goes the thinking, and lead to the toppling of Roe, though many people on both sides of the abortion debate consider this logic far-fetched.

That “personhood’’ efforts have been defeated around the country - notably in Colorado, which in 2008 became the first state to put such a measure before voters - has not daunted advocates of the movement, a loose confederation of antiabortion groups.

Mason is joining a handful of activists in Sacramento to announce a campaign to gather signatures for a ballot initiative that would amend California’s Constitution to define the term “person’’ as applying to human beings from conception.

Since 2005, California voters have defeated three attempts to limit minors’ access to abortion by requiring parental notification and a waiting period.

Two recently minted stars of the antiabortion movement are behind the measure: The Rev. Walter Hoye, who went to jail last year after violating a law designed to keep protesters away from patients entering abortion clinics, and Lila Rose, a University of California at Los Angeles student who has made undercover videos purporting to show legal violations at Planned Parenthood.

The American Life League, a conservative Catholic group, is advising Hoye and Rose on the initiative, which would require about 690,000 valid signatures to reach the ballot.

The group is also helping with initiative campaigns in Colorado, Florida, Missouri, and Montana.