“Personhood” As a Campaign Issue

At Plum Line this morning, Greg Sargent compiles a handy list of Republican Senate candidates who have either endorsed “personhood” initiatives endowing zygotes with full constitutional rights, or have rejected popular rape-and-incest exceptions to hypothetical abortion bans:

Co-sponsors of the Life at Conception Act include Rep. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Rep. Steve Daines of Montana, both expected general election candidates. Meanwhile, according to McClatchy, three leading GOP Senate candidates in North Carolina — Thom Tillis, Greg Brannon, and Mark Harris — all favor a “Personhood” constitutional amendment that would “grant legal protections to a fertilized human egg and possibly ban some forms of birth control.”

In Georgia, three top Senate candidates — Reps. Paul Broun, Phil Gingrey, and Jack Kingston — all co-sponsored the “Sanctity of Human Life Act,” which gives “full human rights to human zygotes from the moment of fertilization,” as Laura Bassett puts it. In Iowa, state senator Joni Ernst — who is running against Dem Bruce Braley — supported a “Personhood” amendment to the state constitution. In Michigan, Terri Lynn Land didn’t mention rape or incest as exceptions to her anti-abortion stance in an interview with Politico. In Louisiana, Rep. Bill Cassidy — who is running against Mary Landrieu — was marked down by the Louisiana Family Forum as opposing abortion in cases of rape and incest (a spokesperson said he is “staunchly pro life”).

Drawing attention to these positions can produce some real problems for the candidates in question. “Personhood” ballot initiatives have been overwhelmingly rejected twice in Colorado. Another was defeated in hyper-conservative Mississippi by a 58-42 margin. “Personhood” advocates have failed to get ballot initiatives certified in a variety of other states.

But for the most part, the “Personhood” movement has operated under the radar screen, and a surprising number of conservative pols have embraced it as way to distinguish themselves from the standard Republican “pro-life” stance focused on late-term abortions. Public attention may perhaps push some of them into the uncomfortable straddle assumed by Colorado’s Cory Gardner, who has disclaimed his earlier support for his state’s personhood movement even though he continues to cosponsor federal legislation based on the same idea of protecting zygotes from the moment of fertilization.

More generally, the focus on “personhood” is a useful way to expose the radicalism underlying the nearly universal Republican opposition to reproductive rights, aimed not only at banning abortion at any stage of pregnancy but at proscribing widely used birth control methods (or providing legal protection to those who seek to keep their employees from using employer-sponsored health insurance to obtain such contraceptives: the key issue in the Hobby Lobby case).

At a minimum, no candidate for Senate should be allowed to make it to November without clarifying their position on “personhood” or abortion exceptions. As Todd Akin showed in 2012, the rationalizations offered for antichoice positions are often highly illuminating.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.