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Colorado “Personhood” Measure Would Outlaw All Abortions and More

Suppose a criminal brutally raped your daughter or friend and impregnated her, she got an abortion, and then the government subjected her to first-degree murder charges (for killing the fetus) and handed her life imprisonment or the death penalty. A proposal likely to appear on the Colorado ballot in 2014 carries this potential.

The measure would—if interpreted by the courts as its sponsors intend—criminalize every intentional killing of an embryo or fetus, whatever the reason. It would outlaw not only all abortions—even in cases of rape, incest, fetal deformity, and risks to the woman’s health—but all forms of birth control, in vitro fertilization, and stem-cell research that might kill an embryo. Anyone violating the law could be charged with first-degree murder.

If the measure sounds too insane to be real—or if it sounds like it could be seriously proposed only in places like Saudi Arabia—consider the measure’s language and what its sponsors have said about it.

One of the two sponsors of the measure is Gualberto Garcia Jones, who sits on the board of Personhood USA. This organization calls itself a “Christian ministry” and considers all embryos and fetuses to be “preborn children” deserving the same legal rights as (born) people. Personhood USA supported two previous “personhood” measures in Colorado, one in 2008 and another in 2010. (Voters defeated each measure by wide margins.)

The 2014 measure (known by the Colorado secretary of state as Initiative 5) is worded differently than were the previous two proposals, but its intended effect is the same. The measure calls for “homicide prosecutions for killing the unborn.” On September 30, supporters of the measure submitted signatures to place it on the Colorado ballot. (The secretary of state must review the signatures before formally placing it on the ballot.)

The measure declares that “the words ‘person’ and ‘child’ in the Colorado criminal code and the Colorado wrongful death act must include unborn human beings.” Jones explicitly equates a drunk driver who injures a woman and thereby kills her fetus with a doctor who provides an abortion: Both, in his view, deserve criminal prosecution. (Whether the courts would interpret the proposal to include all embryos and fetuses as “unborn human beings,” the measure’s sponsors clearly intend the courts to do just that.)

The proposal would subject anyone who intentionally kills an embryo or fetus to first-degree murder charges—whether a pregnant woman seeking an abortion, a doctor who provides one, an in vitro fertility provider who destroys unused embryos, and so on. Colorado statute 18-3-102 states:

A person commits the crime of murder in the first degree if . . . [a]fter deliberation and with the intent to cause the death of a person other than himself, he causes the death of that person or of another person. . . .

First-degree murder is a Class 1 felony under Colorado law. Colorado statute 18-1.3-1201 states that the penalty for a Class 1 felony is the death penalty or “life imprisonment.” Obviously, then, if the term “person” in Colorado’s criminal statutes includes all embryos and fetuses, the deliberate and intentional killing of any embryo or fetus would be considered first-degree murder under existing statutes.

One difference between the 2014 proposal and the previous “personhood” proposals is its packaging. Supporters of the measure call it the “Brady Amendment,” after Brady, the name that Heather Surovik gave her eight-month-old fetus who was killed by a drunk driver. (Surovik is listed as the second sponsor of the measure, along with Jones.)

Calling this proposal the “Brady Amendment” adds injury to absurdity by tying the proposal to a genuinely criminal act. The law would do far more than punish criminals who kill a woman’s embryo or fetus against her wishes—it would also punish women, doctors, and others for ending a pregnancy in accordance with a woman’s moral right.

Moreover, Colorado already has a law that punishes criminals for killing a fetus or embryo against the wishes of the pregnant woman. On June 5, Governor John Hickenlooper signed bill 13-1154, the “Crimes Against Pregnant Women Act,” which carefully distinguishes between an abortion a woman wants and a criminal assault that kills her embryo or fetus. Notably, Personhood USA opposed the bill because it did not grant full legal “rights” to embryos and fetuses.

The so-called Brady Amendment cannot be dismissed as the insanity of a tiny fringe group, as around 140,000 people signed this year’s “personhood” measure, and “personhood” is widely embraced by leading Colorado Republicans. At least three possible candidates for governor support “personhood” to varying degrees, as do three possible candidates for U.S. Senate and three standing members of Congress in Colorado. A Colorado religious leader in this video explicitly calls for the death penalty for women who get abortions.

Although the measure is not likely to pass a popular vote next year—and, even if it did, it is not likely to pass judicial muster anytime soon—“personhood” supporters are serious about someday making their proposals the law of the land. Deadly serious.

Those who recognize what rights are—and that women have them whereas embryos and fetuses do not—should be outraged at the very thought of such a measure, let alone a movement with the backing this proposal has today. Speak up.

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