Catholics and the Personhood Initiative

Deal W. Hudson
January 18, 2010

As pro-lifers head to the nation’s capital this week, they are united in their opposition to abortion funding in the health-care bill. But, as they gather for the 37th annual March for Life, pro-life leaders are divided on the merits of the Personhood Initiative, a nationwide effort to establish legal “personhood” for the pre-born from the time of conception.

The initiative was begun in 2007 by Kristi Burton, then a 19-year-old Baptist from rural Colorado. Together with Mark Meuser, a young attorney, she founded Colorado for Equal Rights and began collecting the 76,000 signatures necessary to get the Colorado Definition of a Person Amendment on the 2008 ballot. By May 2008, they had collected over 100,000 signatures.

Colorado voters turned down the amendment by a stunning 73 percent to 27 percent, in spite of support from Focus on the Family, American Life League, and legal advice from the Thomas More Law Center. But the effort had failed to gain the support of either National Right to Life (NRTL) or the Colorado Catholic Conference.

NRTL considered incremental pro-life efforts more successful at saving unborn lives, leading to a break with their Colorado affiliate, which supported the amendment. The Colorado bishops took a similar line to NTRL, adding that, if the amendment was overturned in federal court, the ruling could “actively reaffirm the mistaken jurisprudence of Roe.” However, Jennifer Kraska, executive director of the Colorado Catholic Conference, made it clear that they “commend the goal of this effort to end abortion. Individual Catholics may choose to work for its passage.”

Catholic bishops in other states – such as Georgia, Florida, Montana, and North Dakota – have likewise withheld their support from the personhood initiative in their states. Their stance has inevitably confused and upset many Catholic and Evangelical activists, who had become used to working side by side in the pro-life movement. Suddenly, the Catholics were feeling discouraged by their bishops’ lack of support.

However, in October 2009, the Colorado bishops issued a different statement, giving permission for individual pastors to allow signatures to be collected in their parishes.

What had changed?

For one, the initiative had new leadership. The day after the 2008 defeat, Personhood USA was founded by Evangelical ministers Cal Zastrow and Keith Mason. They proposed a new Colorado Fetal Personhood Amendment, written by Georgetown University professor Dianne Irving, who thought the language of the earlier amendment was problematic.

Mason says the organization has not only a new amendment but also a new strategy for the 2010 election. This new strategy includes an outreach to Hispanics, to be lead by Gualberto Garcia Jones, who also heads Colorado Catholics for Personhood. Jones evidently got into a dust-up with the Catholic Conference over allegedly misrepresenting the bishops’ position, but the bishops’ latest statement suggests that rift has been healed.

Bishop Robert Vasa of Baker, Oregon, has taken a more positive view of the efforts to recognize the personhood of the pre-born. In an August 6, 2009, column for the Catholic Sentinel, Vasa wrote that Georgia’s Sanctity of Human Life Act

does not seek to introduce some inane legal fiction, but rather seeks to overturn a faulty legal fiction. The fiction, in which we are presently living, inanely pretends that human beings are not really human beings unless the Supreme Court passes judgment on them and declares them to be so. African slaves were always human beings and the Supreme Court decisions said or did nothing to change that. It simply recognized the truth. The Sanctity of Human Life Act seeks legal recognition of the same truth.

Bishop Vasa is less concerned with the likely outcome of a legal challenge in court than he is with getting the truth about human beings inscribed into law. Russell Shaw, a veteran Catholic journalist, and historian of the U.S. Church sees the effort in a similar light. Writing in Our Sunday Visitor last October, Shaw noted that the personhood effort has had few major victories and has split the pro-life movement, but “they see what they’re doing as a way of keeping the personhood issue alive and visible, educating people on the subject, and giving grassroots pro-lifers something to rally around.”

Thus far in 2010, seven states have launched formal “personhood” efforts: Alaska, California, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Montana, and Nevada. (A judge recently struck down the Nevada amendment on the grounds that it violated a law limiting referendum questions to a single subject.) An additional 26 other states are organized and in the preliminary stages of launching the initiative.

Among the more than 40,000 grassroots volunteers behind Personhood USA, there are undoubtedly thousands of Catholic pro-lifers who remain puzzled by the decision of their bishops to stand at a distance from their effort.


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