On Friday, dozens of pro-life
activists gathered at the Personhood Conference in Washington, D.C.
On Thursday, the 36th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, they had marched with the tens
of thousands of anti-choice activists, but today these activists were talking about personhood, a new plan of attack for the anti-choice movement. These activists are frustrated and
tired of incrementalist approaches to abortion. "It’s not working,"
announced Shaun Kenney of the American Life League. "It’s failing."
The Personhood Conference,
organized by the American Life League, enlisted speakers from a variety of segments of the pro-life movement, including a rising star, Kristi Burton.
Burton is a 21-year-old woman who spearheaded the campaign for a state constitutional amendment in Colorado that
sought to define life as beginning at fertilization. Burton says the
Colorado personhood movement projects a "positive message," unites
pro-lifers, and doesn’t personally attack pro-choice activists.
Although Burton may say she
leads a new way, the overall message of the conference was conflicted.
She said she promotes a positive message, but two of the other speakers
at the conference, Lila Rose and Alan Keyes, both presented very traditional
messages from the pro-life movement. Rose, who gained fame in the movement
for her "investigative" work on Planned Parenthood by posing as
a 13-year-old girl, claimed to be a "new media" advocate, but Rose’s
first video was one that displayed cut-up fetal tissue, an age-old tactic
in the anti-choice movement. The parallels she drew to the Holocaust,
abuse of Native Americans, slavery, and women’s suffrage movements are
long-established narratives in the movement. Rose also adopted the language
of painting the woman as a victim and women’s "complex psychological
Former contender for the Republican
presidential ticket Alan Keyes harked to an even older age of fire-and-brimstone
preaching. Keyes’ entire speech, which lasted 57 minutes, discussed
Cain, Abel, Noah, and other biblical figures, but didn’t mention the
word abortion explicitly. Largely, his speech served to motivate, but
lacked any real substance on the future of the anti-choice movement.
He urged the audience to fight against the "army of darkness" and told the audience that "God wants us to live." Keyes’
only mention of policy was to fight against the Freedom of Choice Act,
legislation that hasn’t even been introduced into the current congressional
Burton’s message was more
practical. She was proud of the fact the personhood amendment was simple:
"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." She
urged the pro-life movement to begin to hire political consultants,
analyze polling data, and raise more money. This, she admits, comes
from her active work with the Republican Party. She noted that the personhood
movement often doesn’t get support from mainstream Republicans, pointing
to the Republican Senate candidate in Colorado, Bob Schaffer, who came out against
the personhood amendment
despite identifying as pro-life. "Politicians and pro-lifers don’t
really get along that well," Burton said.
Most of all, she noted, the
movement needs to unify. "Do you ever see NARAL, Planned Parenthood
or NOW fighting against each other? No, because they have one goal and
they don’t really care about anything but their goal," Burton said.
She apparently thinks the pro-life
movement should follow suit and use the personhood framework to support
other amendments that aren’t necessarily aimed at achieving personhood.
She supports informed consent laws, like those that South Dakota recently
passed, "What it did is it required doctors, before they give an abortion
to a woman, to tell her, ‘If you have an abortion you’ll be terminating
the life of a new, unique, separate living human being,’" Burton
said. "If something like that is tried could we use the personhood
message to educate people while that battle’s going on."
She believes the personhood
framework can be adapted to battles like abortion, stem cell research,
fetal alcohol syndrome, "fetal homicide" (laws that criminalize
accidental or intentional death of a fetus), and emergency contraception.
But Burton seemed ill-informed about the "lies" of her opposition: "They
said, ‘If the Colorado personhood amendment passes birth control will
be outlawed. In vitro fertilization will be outlawed.’ All these things
that weren’t true," she said. "The personhood amendment was a
definition. What it said was that in the future, when our courts and
our legislators are considering laws relating to those kind of things–I
mean in Colorado there isn’t even a law on birth control so how a
definition can affect a law that doesn’t exist, I’m not sure."
When I asked Burton after her speech to talk in
more depth about the Colorado personhood amendment, she said, "Our basic viewpoint
is anything that purposely kills a human being shouldn’t be allowed.
However, there are plenty of forms of birth control that don’t do
that. For instance, I am not against all birth control. A lot of the forms of birth control are a personal
choice between couples." It is interesting that she is willing to
admit that couples may want to make a private decision about birth control
but not about abortion. Even more interesting, she seems to accept birth
control, the most common form of which is an oral contraceptive, but opposes emergency
contraception, something that is essentially the same hormonal drug
in two different doses.
Burton, someone who the pro-life
movement is beginning to look to in their time of frustration with incrementalism
and someone who seems to offer sweeping change, strays from one of the
firmest tenants of the pro-life movement–an opposition to birth control. Yet their rhetoric, in an effort
to be simple, raises more questions than it answers. While the anti-choice movement might agree that life begins "at fertilization," its members seem to differ over just what that means. Ultimately
this might mean the movement is more divided than ever.