On the ballot this November: Obama, McCain and a definition of when life begins

In a nationwide first, Colorado voters will be asked to decide whether a fertilized human egg should be defined as a person.


Catherine Price
July 15, 2008 9:20PM (UTC)

When I moved to California a few years ago and read through my voter's manual as I prepared to hit the polls, I was shocked. I'd thought I was merely supposed to decide whom I wanted to vote for. I did not realize that California should trade in its "Sunshine State" nickname for a new tag line: "California. Land of Ballot Propositions." My poor information pamphlet was weighed down with details on 16 -- count them, 16! -- different issues I was supposed to decide. Should the state authorize $3 billion in bonds to create the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine? Should people with incomes over $1 million pay a special tax to support mental health services for people without insurance? I started off confused, then overwhelmed and, finally, annoyed: I was electing people for public office. Wasn't the whole point to delegate people to make these decisions for me?

I bring this up because Colorado is about to one-up California. Forget taxes and bonds; its November ballot will ask voters to decide whether to define a fertilized human egg as a "person." As the Washington Post reports, this Human Life Amendment (also referred to as the "personhood amendment") says that the word "person" or "persons" in the state Constitution should "include any human being from the moment of fertilization." According to the Post, if the amendment passes, it'd give fertilized eggs the same legal rights and protections as, well, people.

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It doesn't take a genius to figure out the goal of the proposition's proponents (hint: it starts with an "outlaw" and ends with "abortion") -- though the sponsor, a grass-roots antiabortion group called Colorado for Equal Rights, refuses to say so outright. A spokeswoman, Kristi Burton, said it would open the door to modifying other laws to protect the unborn, but wouldn't elaborate on what laws she could possibly be talking about, and repeatedly told the Post that the amendment wasn't aimed at outlawing abortion. It's an interesting argument, given that one of the measure's biggest supporters, Colorado Right to Life, told the Post that measures like this are "the only way we're going to stop abortion." And critics point out that the aim of the measure isn't just to ban abortion in Colorado; it's to try to start a legal battle that would lead to the Supreme Court and result in the overturn of Roe v. Wade.

But as if that weren't enough, there are many other potential legal consequences of the measure -- such as banning certain forms of contraception, like the morning-after pill and IUDs, and further limiting medical research involving embryos. A spokesperson from a group opposing the amendment pointed out that "if we give fertilized eggs legal rights, abortion could be considered murder," and other legal experts say that women could be held legally responsible for a miscarriage if it were found that they could potentially have caused it -- smoking or drinking during pregnancy, for example, could be considered signs of negligence. The Post continues, "Damaged eggs might be eligible for monetary damages. The use of fertilized eggs at fertility clinics or in medical research labs would come into question because the disposal of unused eggs could be considered homicide." And as Scott Moss, a professor at the University of Colorado Law School, points out, "If a pregnant woman is really two people with exactly equal rights, then it is not clear the pregnant woman can undergo any medical treatment that jeopardizes a fertilized egg."

Not all abortion opponents support the measure, however, since they believe that you don't have to have a "personhood amendment" to get the Supreme Court to toss out Roe v. Wade. But unfortunately, while Colorado is the first state that will ask its voters to define personhood at the polls, it's likely not to be the last -- unsuccessful attempts have already been made in Oregon, Montana and Georgia to put similar measures up for a vote. "Even though the success [of getting those measures on the ballot] wasn't immediate, this battle isn't over," said a lawyer who drafted language for the efforts in those states. "This is just the first round."


Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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