The question of when life begins is an incredibly complex one with
enormous legal and ethical ramifications for contraception, abortion,
in vitro fertilization, embryonic stem cell research and the very
definition of our humanity.
Colorado voters will decide this thorny question in November.
On Thursday, the Colorado Secretary of State confirmed that proponents
of a controversial measure to confer constitutional rights on
fertilized human eggs exceeded the number of valid petition signatures
required to place the question on the general election ballot.
The ballot question will read:
Be it Enacted by the People of the State of Colorado:
SECTION 1. Article II of the constitution of the state of Colorado is
amended BY THE ADDITION OF A NEW SECTION to read:
Section 31. Person defined. As used in sections 3, 6, and 25 of
Article II of the state constitution, the terms "person" or "persons"
shall include any human being from the moment of fertilization.
Before voters are inundated with months of campaigning, we put the
measure, now known as Proposed Amendment 48, to a very different test.
We asked a cross-section of religious scholars, clergy and spiritual
leaders – what moral precedent could this potential amendment set? – to
determine if there is uniformity on the theological definition of
Rev. Dr. Phil Campbell, a member of The Interfaith
Alliance of Colorado Board of Directors, United Church of Christ
minister and Director of Ministry Studies at the Iliff School of
Theology in Denver
The ethical obligation and theological worldview
that is dominant in most religious traditions is caring for persons on
this side of birth.
The moral imperative is to commit ourselves to the care of the born
rather than divert our attention to a category of life that is scantily
attested to historically in any religious tradition. The moral issue
this amendment raises is the shift away from the concern regarding the
enormity of need of the born and the common ground that could be found
among various religious traditions to address those needs.
I do not know of a religious community that would support this
amendment – the view that life begins at fertilization – and supports
its proposed goal in their own religious practice. For instance,
adherents to the idea that life begins at fertilization (or conception)
do not expect a fetus to be named. Nor do they support invitro
baptismal ceremonies, naming ceremonies, or conduct burials for a
miscarried fetus according to their religious tradition as they would
for a person who has died. I believe there is a disconnect between what
proponents of this measure proclaim and what they actually practice.
This is a moral concern, as well as an ethical concern.
An amendment is not needed for religious communities to treat fetuses as human beings.
Rabbi Joel R. Schwartzman, president of the Rocky Mountain Rabbinical Council
Coloradans seeking to place the proposition on
the ballot that life begins at the moment of fertilization must of
necessity claim to have God on their side because they are seeking to
play God through their efforts.
Naming conception as the starting point for life is not a purely
arbitrary act. A fertilized egg may reach term and be born. There is
much that can happen along the way, not involving abortion, that can
negate this possibility.
For perhaps this very reason Rabbinic Judaism held that life begins
only at birth. That is the law within Jewish life to this day. The
rabbis had every bit as much claim to God in their decision as these
anti-abortion forces have the right to attempt to bring a plebiscite in
this state to say otherwise.
Without the question of abortion rights, however, this clearly wouldn’t
be a ballot issue, and we could all interpret God’s word in and for our
own lives without submitting it to a popular vote.
Rev. Nathan Woodliff-Stanley, a member of The Interfaith
Alliance of Colorado Board of Directors and Chair of TIA-CO’s Public
Policy Commission. He is also Minister of Social Responsibility at
Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden
One moral precedent I think this initiative
would set is that it would devalue all aspects of human life and moral
choices beyond genetics.
Defining a fertilized egg as a person essentially says that nothing
else counts about what we may think of as the essence of personhood -
not consciousness, thoughts, feelings, autonomy, capacity to love and
form relationships, creative imagination, a unique life history and
experience, or anything else.
A fertilized egg has none of these qualitlies – the only thing it has
in common with a person is human DNA. So in essence, this initiative
says that human beings are nothing more than DNA – nothing else matters
for a definition of personhood. By consequence, the existence of human
DNA overrides all other moral considerations of personhood.
Pastor Brent Cunningham, Spiritual Formation, Timberline Church in Fort Collins
We support the full and inherent dignity of
human beings across the lifespan. This is wholly consonant with the
biblical worldview; one does not suddenly gain or acquire moral status
at some stage in development. Human dignity or moral worth is inherent
or intrinsic, and is not "assigned" by someone external to us when we
reach their arbitrarily defined "state" of
Here is the danger. If moral status (dignity) is tied to an arbitrary
definition of "personhood" (usually having to do with specific
functional capacities), as opposed to simply being human, then we head
down a road where we can just as easily "take it away" (moral worth).
We should wonder at the moral precedent have we set by "creating" the
concept of a "Human non-person" (i.e., that one can be a member of the
human species but not yet a person with full moral worth). This rather
nonsensical (as well as dangerous) concept is the issue that this
amendment seeks to rectify. And it does so by articulating a concept
that has a long tradition in Western moral philosophy.
Jann Halloran, minister of the Prairie Unitarian
Universalist Church of Parker, maternity unit counselor and member of
the Colorado Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice
It feels like there is one religious perspective
but there’s not. It seems so monolithic to say that from the second an
egg is fertilized that this is now a person. And the woman that is
carrying that person is now enslaved to whatever happens next.
There is a lot of guilt with miscarriage. Every woman wonders, ‘What
did I do wrong?’ And now you’re saying it was a murder. It’s so cruel
and it’s so harsh.
To simply say that this is when life begins the second an egg is
fertilized is dancing on the head of a pin. None of us really knows and
we have to make the most complicated moral decisions we can make in the
best interest of our health, our families and the potential new life.
This issue is so rife with sexism. Religion and men telling women how
to live their lives, how to control their sexuality and how to control
their reproductive systems. They don’t give women the ethical agency
that we were born with to make these decisions.
It’s very scary. There are so many ramifications around birth control,
fertility and how women have to deal with these issues in their real
I don’t think there are grounds for this in the Christian or Jewish
tradition. Until a baby is born, you don’t know what you have. That
doesn’t mean that anything that happens before birth isn’t worthy of
tears or anger or celebration or fear. But until the incredible gift of
life is given and it comes out of the womb, that’s as reasonable and
moral a position of when life begins as when an egg is fertilized.
I also respect the passion of the religious right to hold very
different positions and that’s why I don’t want one particular position
in our constitution.
Rev. Patrick Hurley, president of the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado and retired pastor Presbyterian Church, Pueblo
The measure, proposed by Colorado for Equal
Rights, is a full-throttle attack on the religious and civil liberties
of all Coloradans.
We believe this measure would limit religious freedom by enshrining a
particular religious definition of life in the Colorado Constitution.
There is not a singular religious definition of life, despite what the
proponents of this measure would have Coloradans believe. This measure
is more than an attack on religious freedom, however. It is also a
serious threat to women’s health and women’s civil rights.
The Interfaith Alliance of Colorado believes the personhood amendment sets a dangerous moral precedent as well.
Our moral imperative is to commit ourselves to the care of the born.
This amendment shifts our attention away from the enormity of need of
poor and marginalized Coloradans and the common ground that could be
found among various religious traditions, political parties, and people
of goodwill across the state. We should create laws that promote the
common good and not narrow, extreme political and religious ideologies.
The Archdiocese of Denver, Islamic Center of Boulder and
Thubten Shedrup Ling/Buddhist Center did not return calls for comment.
No one was available to respond from the Assemblies of God Rocky
Mountain District Council, which recently endorsed the ballot measure.
Read part one of this continuing series – Origins of Personhood: Using ‘States Rights’ to Restrict Abortion and our ongoing reporting on the issue.