Colorado’s Personhood Initiative Fails—For Now

Colorado’s fetal personhood ballot initiative petition failed to get enough valid signatures, and so the measure will not appear on the ballot, Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler announced this morning.

According to the Denver Post, some of the signatures were deemed invalid, so the petition was found to have only 85,800 valid signatures—305 signatures short of the required 86,105. Jennifer Mason, speaking for Personhood Colorado, said that the group has hired an election attorney and is confident the measure will still appear on the ballot. (Ms. Mason is also the Communications Director for Personhood USA, the Colorado-based umbrella group coordinating the state personhood efforts.)

The amendment’s text would make it illegal to intentionally kill “any innocent person”—with “person” defined as “every human being regardless of the method of creation,” and “human being” defined as “a member of the species homo sapien at any stage of development.”

But the proposed text doesn’t define what to my theological ears is the more provocative term: “innocent.” 

Presumably, its use here is meant to do several things: (1) portray the fetus as an agent with moral standing, one in need of protection; (2) allow for the taking of guilty human life (since many social conservatives support the death penalty while also being opposed to abortion); and (3) contrast the innocence of the fetus with the guilt of the father. Indeed, on the last point, the amendment draws this contrast specifically: “No innocent child created through rape or incest shall be killed for the crime of his or her father.” 

But notice, where rape and incest are concerned, it is only the fetus’ innocence that’s stipulated. 

See, if I were talking about the innocent people injured by rape, I would eventually consider the person who was raped. I might even at some point think about her innocence. (Well, I probably wouldn’t put it in those terms. I would think, “[Expletive deleted], that’s horrible and should never ever ever have happened and it was WRONG!” And if that rape or incest led to a pregnancy, I would probably ALSO think, at some point, “[Expletive deleted], that’s horrible and should never ever ever have happened and it was WRONG!”) But basically, at some point, I would suspend by focus only on the possibility that conception resulted from rape or incest, and notice the person who suffered the rape or incest. 

So is that woman “innocent,” on the personhood movement’s terms? (We know that a strict application of the Akin theory of reproduction would say no, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they don’t share his views.) Or, alternately, is she sorta innocent, but not to such a degree that she should be spared having to endure a pregnancy? 

After all, if a pregnancy would actually directly kill her, the text of the initiative seems to make a provision: section 2(c) says “Medical treatment for life-threatening physical conditions intended to preserve life shall not be affected.” But if bearing her rapist’s child would just make her literally lose her sanity, say? Or if her pregnancy will invite further abuse from the male relative already abusing her? Well, then we’re evidently back to weighing the innocence of the fetus with the guilt of the father, with nary a consideration for the woman. 

To be sure, neither rape exceptions nor life-of-the-mother exceptions really make a lot of sense if you truly think that a fertilized embryo is a rights-bearing human being. But a life-of-the-mother exception, without a rape exception, gives a pretty clear picture of where the pregnant woman’s welfare fits into the picture. It’s saying, in essence: “Is being pregnant going to actually directly literally kill her? No? Oh, so it might just completely wreck her life and re-traumatize her in ways I can never really understand since I’m not her? Yeah, that’s fine. I’m okay with that possibility. Make sure she does what I think she should do. Make sure it’s not her decision.”

I doubt most supporters of personhood measures would actually say that. I’d like to think most of them don’t think that. But that just shows how important it is to remember, when the subject of fetal “personhood” comes up, that women are still fighting to be recognized as actual people who should be taken into account. A woman pregnant by rape is an actual person (with a heartbeat! and brain waves!). She is an actual member of the species homo sapien, at an honest-to-goodness stage of biological development. She has a body and a life, about which she gets to make decision. She has circumstances, which she takes into account when she makes those decisions. And I’m betting she understands all those things—body, life, circumstances, the whole deal—better than does the average voter, even a well-meaning voter who doesn’t like to think about pregnancies being terminated. 

So. In light of that, might I suggest that framing this exhaustively in terms of innocent fetuses and guilty fathers is… maybe not as compassionate as I hope we all try to be? 

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