15 November 2011

Personhood debate hopes to challenge Roe v. Wade

By Eric Donato, Juris Blogger
“Every year that goes by,” the petition began, “over one million children in the womb are brutally murdered through abortion. The key to unraveling this tragedy is a simple one and it has been known since before Roe v. Wade. It is Personhood.”

The petition was directed at lawmakers and the general public in a recent, headline-grabbing effort that culminated in a vote on November 8 to amend the Mississippi State Constitution to define human life as beginning at conception.

The widely controversial personhood amendment was defeated by 55 percent of voters, a significant, and perhaps soon-to-be typical, setback for a movement that could not achieve its goals in one of the strongest pro-life jurisdictions in the country. Though Mississippi's efforts are halted for the moment, the personhood movement is a nationwide phenomenon with initiatives that, if successful, will likely come before the country’s highest court for review.

The effort is championed by Personhood USA, a Colorado-based Christian organization that helps organize and initiate political action with the goal of giving full legal rights to human embryos. The organization has supported similar initiatives in Colorado in 2008 and 2010, and it is trying to get the measure launched in several other states for 2012.

A personhood amendment, as it was drafted in Mississippi, would have implications beyond making abortion illegal. Birth control methods that destroy fertilized eggs, such as the morning-after pill, would also become illegal, and medical treatment for infertility could possibly be inhibited because current in vitro fertilization methods often require the use of multiple fertilized eggs to achieve a successful pregnancy. Because eggs would have full legal rights as human beings under a personhood amendment, a doctor could conceivably be held criminally liable for the ‘death’ of those that do not result in pregnancy. There would also be no exceptions made for pregnancies that were the result of rape or incest.

The biggest hurdle a personhood amendment would face, however, would come from the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in Roe that abortion was a right protected by the Constitution. In a 7-2 majority ruling, with Justice Harold Blackmun delivering the majority opinion, the court found that a “right of privacy” established by the 14th Amendment’s concept of personal liberty and restrictions upon state action, "is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.” A state constitution that prevents abortion would clearly conflict with this decision, making a showdown in the Supreme Court all but inevitable.

This is Personhood USA’s intention, as their petition explains, “[n]ot once, since 1973, has the Supreme Court been challenged to reconsider Blackmun’s terrible words.”

Despite the results in Mississippi, Personhood USA and its allies continue to fight for a Supreme Court re-examination of Roe. Signatures are currently being gathered in California, Florida, Oregon, Montana, Nevada, and Ohio to place personhood amendments on their ballots in 2012. Additionally, three separate bills have been written in the U.S. Congress and endorsed by both House and Senate members to achieve effectively the same goal.

In the wake of the failed Mississippi ballot initiative, it appears unlikely that a personhood amendment or Congressional bill will succeed. Still, it’s unclear whether the movement’s momentum has been slowed or if it will go on to build into a legitimate challenge to one of America’s most well known and controversial judicial decisions.

Eric Donato is a first year student at the Duquesne University School of Law. He earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh, where he studied Journalism and Political Science. He has been a staff writer for several publications, including Pitt Med magazine. Eric can be reached at ericsdonato@gmail.com.