Anti-Choice 'Personhood' Measures Fail in North Dakota and Colorado


(AP Photo/James MacPherson, File)

On November 4, 2014, North Dakotans voted down a fetal personhood measure. In this March 25, 2013, file photo Kris Kitko, left, leads chants of protest at an abortion-rights rally at the state Capitol in Bismarck.

The 2014 midterm elections proved to be a routing for Democrats; they lost the Senate, gave up seats in the House, and even deep-blue Maryland elected a Republican governor. But despite the Republican wave, there were ballot measures whose results Democrats could celebrate. Throughout the nation, liberal initiatives fared way better than the candidates who support them—including gun control, minimum wage hikes, marijuana legalization and abortion rights.

For the third time Colorado citizens voted on a personhood amendment but, unfortunately for anti-choicers, persistence won’t do the trick. Amendment 67 in Colorado would have amended the state constitution to define “person” and “child” in the Colorado criminal code and the Colorado wrongful death act to include “unborn human beings.” The initiative failed by nearly 30 points. But even after a resounding “no” on a personhood amendment, Colorado elected Cory Gardner to the United States Senate. Although he dropped his support for fetal personhood measures in the days leading up to the election, Gardner’s name remains as a cosponsor on federal legislation that would confer the protections of the Bill of Rights on fetuses, effectively trumping the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade that made abortion legal. The state of reproductive rights in Colorado is curious—the voters overwhelmingly support a woman’s right to choose, but they elect candidates who clearly do not.

North Dakota’s personhood amendment was possibly the most radical abortion initiative on a ballot in the midterms. Lacking in specificity, the initiative would have simply amended the state constitution to include, “the inalienable right to life of every human being at any stage of development must be recognized and protected.” Karla Hanson, spokesperson for the Vote No on Measure 1 in North Dakota, stressed the fact that the law’s vagueness meant it was open to interpretation.

“Measure 1 could give government—not families—power over a whole range of personal health care decisions,” Hanson told the Prospect. According to Hanson, supporters of the Vote No on Measure 1 North Dakota campaign worried that this anti-choice amendment would also impact end-of-care life decisions, in vitro fertilization treatments, doctors’ ability to care for women with crisis pregnancies and, of course, ban abortion even in cases of rape, incest or life of the woman. North Dakota isn’t exactly a bastion of abortion access—there is only one clinic in the state and the state legislature once attempted to ban abortion after just six weeks of pregnancy. Still, the Measure 1 amendment was too radical even for North Dakotans, who defeated the measure 64 to 36 percent.

But in Tennessee, supporters of reproductive rights did not enjoy the same good fortune as their counterparts in North Dakota and Colorado. On the ballot was a statewide initiative to amend the state constitution to read “nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion,” which is in direct conflict with federal law. Tennessee’s Amendment 1 is “historically dangerous amendment,” said Vote No On 1 Tenneesee spokesman Steve Hershkowitz, and strips away “the established right to safe and legal abortion in Tennessee.” The United States Constitution, as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court, guarantees the right to an abortion without undue burden, but the measure, apparently designed to come before the high court, still passed by 52 to 47 percent.

The amendment’s proponents claim that Tennessee is a top destination for abortions for women froum out of state. (Some of the states surrounding Tennessee, like Missouri, have extremely strict abortion regulations.) The Vote Yes On 1 Tennessee Campaign purports that the amendment is an attempt to curb this trend of out-of-state women traveling to Tennessee for abortions, but the Vote No campaign remains skeptical. “Proponents of the amendment have been very clear that their ultimate goal is to ban abortion with no exceptions,” said Hershkowitz. Amendment 1 appears to be just one step along the road to restricting abortion access in Tennessee.

It’s clear that explicit personhood amendments are not popular—regardless of the state’s political leanings. While it’s a small victory for women and supporters of women rights alike—the defeat of personhood measures last night doesn’t mean that amendments perceived as tamer—but that otherwise threaten abortion rights—won’t be appearing on ballots or as bills in state legislatures.