Anti-abortion groups split on “personhood” amendment

Right to Life of Montana, the Montana Family Foundation and the Montana Catholic Conference will not support the campaign to get a so-called “personhood” amendment on the 2010 ballot.

Officials for all three groups told me that they want to ban abortion, but that the strategy put forth by the pro-“personhood” crowd could have disastrous consequences for their cause.

The Montana ProLife Coalition, headed by Kalispell physician Annie Bukacek, launched the “personhood” campaign on Wednesday. Their goal is to change the Montana Constitution by adding a section to Article II that would read something like this:

“With respect to the fundamental and inalienable right to life, the word ‘person’ as used in sections 4, 15, 16 and 17 of this article, applies to all human beings, irrespective of age, health, function, physical and/or mental dependency or method of reproduction, from the beginning of the biological development of that human being.”

The primary motivation behind the proposed amendment is the hope that if it becomes law that it would trigger a direct legal challenge Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in the U.S.

Bukacek said as much at Wednesday’s press conference at the capitol:

“The root of legalization of abortion is the denial of personhood. Justice Blackmun who wrote the majority decision in Roe v. Wade himself said that if the personhood of the unborn was established, then their right to life is guaranteed specifically by the 14th Amendment. That is why we say the personhood of the unborn is pivotal to overturning Roe v. Wade and why Montana ProLife Coalition chooses personhood as our primary legal strategy to end abortion.”

Most Montana anti-abortion groups don’t support that strategy. Some anti-abortion legal scholars and officials for the three aforementioned pro-life groups say a “personhood” amendment could have several unintended consequences for their movement.

Moe Wosepka, executive director of the Montana Catholic Conference, had this to say:

“…this could very possibly strengthen Roe v. Wade, which would weaken pro-life efforts. We don’t want to take that chance.”

This from Gregg Trude, executive director of Right to Life of Montana:

“The people at Montana ProLife Coalition, bless their hearts, they are trying to do this process and they don’t understand the ramifications behind what could happen if it got through, and it’s very frustrating.”

So what are those ramifications?

James Bopp Jr., an attorney for National Right to Life who has argued abortion cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, laid them out in a 2007 memo:

“…now is not the time to pass state constitutional amendments or bills banning abortion because (1) such provisions will be quickly struck down by a federal district court, (2) that decision will be affirmed by an appellate court, (3) the Supreme Court will not grant review of the decision, and (4) the pro-abortion attorneys who brought the legal challenge will collect statutory attorneys fees from the state that enacted the provision in the amount of hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Montana ProLife Coalition board member and former state legislator Rick Jore says Bopp’s concerns are hogwash. In an interview for my story in Sunday’s Tribune, Jore said:

“Our concern is that for too long, because we’ve simply shied away from direct challenge of the premise of our opponents, that we’ve compromised ourselves by saying we’re going to save some babies but abort the rest,” Jore said. “In my view, by taking that position, we’ve too often compromised our credibility. It has compromised our underlying premise, which is that all unborn from the time of conception are human beings that deserve the protection of law.”

Travis McAdam of the Montana Human Rights Network, characterized Montana ProLife Coalition this way:

“What’s interesting about the group that’s pushing and sponsoring this proposed constitutional amendment is that it really is the fringe of the anti-choice crowd. It’s people who looked at Right to Life Montana and said, they’re not active enough, not doing enough, not quite extreme enough.”

You can read the full story in Sunday’s Tribune.