This is the second post in a RWW series on the reemergence of the fetal personhood movement and what it means for the future of abortion rights in the U.S.
Part 1: The Personhood Movement: Where It Comes From And What It Means For The Future Of Choice
Part 3: The Personhood Movement: Undermining Roe In The Courts
Part 4: The Personhood Movement: Regrouping After Defeat
As proponents of the “personhood” strategy to end legal abortion like to remind those who will listen, the original goal of the anti-abortion rights movement after Roe v. Wade was to pass a constitutional amendment overturning the decision. And one possible amendment — along with a dubious statutory alternative — would have done so by defining “personhood” as starting at conception.
In the 1970s and 1980s, dozens of anti-Roe “Human Life Amendments” were introduced in Congress, containing a variety of language. Only one made it to an up-or-down vote in Congress: the “Hatch-Eagleton Amendment,” which would have simply gutted Roe by stating, “A right to abortion is not secured by this Constitution.” In June of 1983, the amendment fell far short of the two-thirds majority needed for a constitutional amendment, garnering just 49 yes votes.
But there was another strategy for amending the Constitution to reverse Roe, one that rather than just returning to the states the power to regulate abortion would have overturned Roe by declaring that fetuses are “persons” protected under the Constitution. In 1976, one such amendment was put up for a test vote in the Senate, garnering only 40 votes in support.
The language of these amendments was a matter of bitter internal debate among anti-abortion rights groups. One draft amendment formulated by the National Right to Life Committee in 1974, known as the NRLC Amendment, would have declared that the word “person” in the 14th and 5th Amendments “applies to all human beings irrespective of age, health, function, or condition of dependency, including their unborn offspring at every stage of their biological development,” but included a specific exemption for “medical procedures required to prevent the death of the mother.”
Some members of NRLC’s budding coalition thought the amendment didn’t go far enough to prohibit abortion, arguing that the “life of the mother” exception was too broad. Two founding members of NRLC, Judie and Paul Brown, had left the group because they perceived it as too willing to compromise and founded their own anti-choice group, the American Life League (ALL) and helped to establish the radical abortion “rescue” movement. In 1979, ALL wrote its own amendment, nicknamed the “Paramount Amendment,” which would have erased all abortion exceptions by declaring, “The paramount right to life is vested in each human being from the moment of fertilization without regard to age, health, or condition of dependency.”
Faced with a splintering movement, NRLC held months of talks with its fellow anti-abortion groups, hoping to hammer out a Human Life Amendment that they could unify behind. In October of 1981, NRLC announced that “with tears of joy and happiness” it had “solved what formerly appeared to be an irreconcilable difference over a fundamental question: how to allow for just those abortions truly needed to prevent the death of the mother without at the same time making her right to life superior to that of her unborn child.”
NRLC’s new “Unity Amendment,” which was introduced by Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina that December (and which ALL still refused to support), tightened the “life of the mother” exception by adding the stipulation that abortion would be allowed only to “prevent the death of either the pregnant woman or her unborn offspring, as long as such law requires every reasonable effort be made to preserve the life of each.”
All of these amendments failed to get off the ground, as did a novel and controversial legislative approach to achieve the same goal. In 1981, Helms and Sen. Henry Hyde introduced a bill that they claimed could overturn Roe without a constitutional amendment or a new Supreme Court majority, by simply declaring that life begins “at conception.” The effect of the law, the New York Times reported at the time, would be to once again allow “states, if they choose, to prosecute abortion as murder.” President Reagan got behind the strategy, but legal scholars called the bill unconstitutional. NRLC and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops continued to favor the constitutional amendment strategy, doubting that the Helms-Hyde bill would hold up in the courts.
By that time, however, it became clear that a constitutional amendment and the Helms-Hyde personhood bill weren’t going anywhere in Congress, and proponents had already started focusing on other strategies to turn back the tide on abortion rights.
In 1975, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops had developed a plan to turn every diocese into an anti-choice political machine and to use its existing infrastructure to set up an office in every congressional district. The bishops’ plan included a four-pronged legislative strategy, which continues to guide the anti-choice movement today:
(a) Passage of a constitutional amendment providing protection for the unborn child to the maximum degree possible.
(b) Passage of federal and state laws and adoption of administrative policies that will restrict the practice of abortion as much as possible.
(c) Continual research into and refinement and precise interpretation of Roe and Doe and subsequent court decisions.
(d) Support for legislation that provides alternatives to abortion.
In other words: fight for an amendment to undo Roe, but at the same time work through the courts and legislatures to make it harder for women to access legal abortion. While Roe would remain the law of the land, women would not be able to actually exercise their rights.
Part of this strategy involved targeting public funding for abortions. Frederick Jaffe, Barbara Lindheim and Philip Lee explained in their 1981 book “Abortion Politics”:
The new strategy was outlined by RTL [Right to Life] leader Randy Engel, who urged restrictive riders on “any and all federal legislation related directly or indirectly to health,” in order to keep the abortion issue visible and build support. She argued that the efforts to win interim legislation would provide antiabortion workers with political experience, would educate the public, and would force members of Congress to go on record one way or the other. Not least important, she added, this strategy would require the forces supporting abortion rights to expend time, effort and resources in opposing riders.
One of the early victories of this strategy was the 1976 passage of the Hyde Amendment, a rider to the health and human services spending bill that prohibited Medicaid from funding abortions for low-income women. The Hyde Amendment was a victory, but it provoked yet more squabbling within the anti-abortion rights movement.
When it was first passed, the Hyde Amendment contained one exception: for abortions that could save the life of a “clearly endangered” pregnant woman. But because it was attached to a spending bill, the Hyde Amendment had to be renewed annually. The next year, after a lengthy legislative deadlock, Congress kept the exception for saving a woman’s life and added additional exceptions for ensuring a woman’s long-term health and for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest.
The 1977 compromise allowing abortion funding for rape and incest survivors — which has been modified several times since then — was a setback for anti-choice hardliners, but the anti-abortion rights movmement’s leaders continue to celebrate the Hyde Amendment’s repeated renewal. In 2013, on the amendment’s anniversary, National Right to Life crowed that “over one million people are alive today because of the Hyde Amendment.”
But Daniel Becker, a longtime personhood activist and founder of the new Personhood Alliance, sees it differently. “The Hyde Amendment,” Becker wrote in his 2011 book on the personhood concept, “damaged the very fabric of our mission. No longer would the lofty rhetoric of ‘sanctity of all human life’ and ‘the personhood of the unborn’ be embodied in a strategy to achieve those protections. The prolife movement had a seat at the political table, but contented itself with crumbs.”
In 2007, the anti-choice movement achieved another seeming victory that was divisive in its own ranks. The Supreme Court, which now included George W. Bush appointees John Roberts and Samuel Alito, reversed a previous decision and upheld the 2003 ban on a specific procedure that the anti-choice movement had labeled “partial birth abortion.”
Linda Greenhouse wrote in the New York Times that the decision, Gonzales v. Carhart, was a “vindication” of the anti-choice movement’s strategy of pursuing a “partial birth” ban after the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey made a more sweeping victory look unfeasible: “By identifying the… procedure and giving it the provocative label ‘partial-birth abortion,’ the movement turned the public focus of the abortion debate from the rights of women to the fate of fetuses.”
As with the congressional fight over abortion coverage in Medicaid, abortion rights opponents hoped to use the debate over so-called “partial birth” abortion, an exceedingly rare procedure, to keep attention on their efforts to end legal abortion entirely.
But not everybody in the anti-choice movement was thrilled. In fact, the decision that was widely seen as a victory for the anti-choice movement brought into the public eye a long-simmering split in the movement.
Six weeks after Gonzales was handed down, a coalition of anti-abortion groups, including the Colorado chapter of National Right to Life, took out a full-page ad in newspapers around the country attacking Focus on the Family founder James Dobson for supporting the ruling.
One Denver pastor in the group, Bob Enyart, accused mainstream pro-life groups of fundraising off a strategy that “has no authority to prevent a single abortion” because other procedures could be used in place of the banned operation. Colorado Right to Life President Brian Rohrbough told the Washington Post, “What happened in the abortion world is that groups like National Right to Life, they’re really a wing of the Republican Party, and they’re not geared to push for personhood for an unborn child — they’re geared to getting Republicans elected. So we’re seeing these ridiculous laws like the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban put forward, and then we’re deceived about what they really do.”
As the Post noted, NRLC’s detractors started referring to the group as the “pro-life industry” — a term intentionally reminiscent of the anti-choice movement’s “abortion industry” epithet for abortion providers, implying that those groups had sold out and cared more about their fundraising than their mission. (Several years later, Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia was using similar rhetoric to question the group’s motives.)
A week later, leaders of Colorado Right to Life confronted the board of NRLC at its annual meeting, attacking its “immoral and failed anti-abortion strategy.” Enyart told the board, in a speech secretly recorded by Colorado Right to Life:
We’ve provided cover to pro-choice politicians, even Democrats, who would say, ‘I’m not an extremist, I supported the partial-birth abortion ban.’ We wasted 15 years while 20 million kids — 20 million kids — have died. We’ve spent a quarter of a billion dollars as an industry for a ban that does not have the authority to save one life. You guys are worried about what’s growing in Colorado. I’ll tell you what’s growing in Washington, D.C. It’s called the abortion weed. Child-killing regulations — that’s what National Right to Life is really good at — child-killing regulations prune the abortion weed and sanction its root.
National Right to Life promptly voted to kick the Colorado group out of the organization. Colorado Right to Life then hired an Abraham Lincoln impersonator to accost conference-goers with a revised version of the Gettysburg Address: “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…no exceptions!”
It was around this time that the “personhood” strategy began to see a national reemergence in the public eye, and along with it a legal theory that had long been dismissed even by leaders in the anti-choice movement.
The next post in this series will look at the debate within the anti-choice movement on how to best confront Roe v. Wade in the courts.