Colorado is one of several states facing a controversial ballot measure this fall that could have far-reaching impacts on abortion law. Amendment 48 would define "personhood" as beginning at the moment of conception, giving fertilized human eggs the same constitutional rights as a person.
The first of its kind in the U.S., the amendment is the brainchild of 21-year-old Kristi Burton, who says she wants to establish a concrete definition of when life begins to protect unborn children. On a Sunday in October, Burton drove three hours from her home near Colorado Springs to speak at Life Church, an evangelical congregation in Fort Collins.
"Basically we're then directing our courts and our Legislature to say now that an unborn child is defined as a person; you need to look at that when making your laws," Burton said. She had set up a table displaying pictures of babies, along with bumper stickers and promotional DVDs to support her initiative. "If you'd like to get involved, we have many materials you can pick up, and please do pray for us. I really do believe that in the end, God is the one that fights the battle."
Similar measures have been proposed in Mississippi, Montana and Georgia, but Colorado is the only state to get enough signatures to put the personhood amendment on the ballot. It's the latest tactic by the anti-abortion movement to set the legal groundwork to overturn the controversial Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in 1973.
Burton, who is studying at an online Christian law school, has been working on the concept for the past two years and says an attorney friend of hers wrote the amendment.
"I do believe that Roe v. Wade should be overturned," Burton says. "I mean even a lot of people on the pro-choice side say it was a bad decision made on bad law. And that's why we're trying to define a person and that's why Roe v. Wade should be relooked at. At least present new information."
As it stands, however, the amendment goes far beyond the issue of abortion, raising a host of questions regarding which constitutional rights a fertilized egg can logically be entitled to. Jessica Berg, a professor of law and bioethics at Case Western Reserve University, says the amendment could lead to some bizarre situations — such as counting fertilized eggs in the state census and pregnant drivers using the HOV lanes.
"If you don't know you're pregnant at that point, and you drink or do something dangerous — or you do something problematic very early on, and you're in Colorado or passing through Colorado — have you committed child abuse and endangerment?" Berg wonders.
Berg says that as written, the amendment would classify all the fertilized eggs used in fertility labs — which number in the hundreds of thousands — as persons.
"You could never get rid of them," she says of the fertilized eggs. "It's not clear whether you could freeze them, because we certainly don't have a concept of freezing indefinitely a person. It's not clear how you then adopt them — would you have to go through all the normal adoption proceedings?"
The controversial amendment has divided the anti-abortion community. The Colorado Catholic Conference worries that the courts would strike it down and end up reaffirming current abortion laws, and Colorado's anti-abortion Democratic governor, Bill Ritter, says the state could rack up huge legal bills defending the amendment.
"[The amendment] is outside the bounds of present law, present constitutional law," Ritter says. "It's just an extreme position by a really narrow interest group, narrowly crafted, and it's the wrong response."
The latest polls have the personhood amendment trailing by 15 percentage points, with 16 percent of the electorate undecided. National Conference of State Legislatures analyst Jennie Drage Bowser says even if it does fail, she thinks other states will still copy it.
"When a ballot measure is tried as a new idea in one state, it's not at all uncommon that that model is repeated in other states," she says. "So I do think that people in the anti- abortion community are going to be watching what happens in Colorado, and it could serve as a successful model. At the very least, though, it's important because it is a new strategy."
Should the amendment pass, both sides expect it would spend years being litigated in the courts. Proponents hope it would be challenged all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to force a review of Roe v. Wade.
Bente Birkeland reports from Rocky Mountain Community Radio.