"When we compromise -- someone dies": The terrifying "fetal personhood" baggage that will haunt Rand Paul in 2016

Rand Paul has aligned himself with a movement considered too fringe even by extremists like National Right to Life

By Katie McDonough

Published April 30, 2015 3:00PM (EDT)

Rand Paul                        (AP/Susan Walsh)
Rand Paul (AP/Susan Walsh)

What does Rand Paul have in common with an Abraham Lincoln impersonator who reimagined the Gettysburg Address to be about fetuses and the author of B-rate dystopian fiction about a “subclass of human-animal hybrids” forced into menial labor in a world that no longer values "the sanctity of human life"? They all believe fertilized eggs have full legal rights under the 14th Amendment, a legal and political concept so extreme that most mainstream anti-choice organizations won't touch it during an election year.

The primary difference here is that fake Abraham Lincoln and Georgia Right to Life president (and apparent science fiction enthusiast) Daniel Becker are open about their extreme views while Paul -- like many others in the mainstream anti-abortion movement -- tends to change messaging depending on who he thinks is listening. This is the difference that animates a central divide in the anti-choice movement, according to a new report on the history and current face of personhood released by the People for the American Way Foundation.

As aligned as the objectives of the personhood and mainstream anti-abortion movements may be, the differences in approach and policy have split conservatives over the years. Organizations like Americans United for Life and the National Right to Life Committee have been tremendously successful at chipping away abortion rights through piecemeal legislation that restricts access on multiple fronts, and the measures regulating clinics are cloaked in the language of women’s health and safety -- like laws requiring clinics to meet the standards of ambulatory surgical centers.

As we saw earlier this year when a group of Republican women “revolted” against a 20-week abortion ban (one they had previously supported), some in the GOP have even gotten savvier about the optics of advancing abortion bans without exemptions for rape, incest and health of the mother. And while mainstream anti-choice groups like the Susan B. Anthony List and Americans United for Life support personhood, they work hard during election years to keep it out of the public debate.

But when it comes to branding their movement and developing a strategy, personhood advocates like Becker and former Georgia congressman Paul Broun won’t mince words, according to the report. Here’s how Broun explained his vote against a 2013 version of a measure manning abortion at 20 weeks because it included exceptions for rape and incest:

If we can save some, let’s do it, but let’s not make exceptions and [say] that some babies are worth killing and some are not. They’re all worth saving. [...] You see, God is a holy, righteous God. He cannot continue to bless America while we’re killing over a million babies every single day. Abortion must stop. [Editor’s note: According to data from the Guttmacher Institute, there were 1 million abortions performed in 2011, nowhere near Broun's estimate.]

Before Rand Paul, now running for president and tailoring his comments to broader base of voters, started going after reporters who asked him about his abortion views, he talked about personhood in similar terms to Broun. He is also the sponsor of federal legislation that would give fertilized eggs full rights under the 14th Amendment, a piece of legislation he called a constitutional "fix" to Roe v. Wade.

Here’s how Paul tried to frame his views on abortion in an interview with CNN:

What I would say is that there are thousands of exceptions. You know, I’m a physician and every individual case is going to be different, and everything is going to be particular to that individual case and what’s going on with that mother and the medical circumstances of that mother. [...] I don’t think it’s a simple as checking box and saying exceptions or no exceptions.

But here’s how he defended it in a voter appeal message to the National Pro-Life Alliance:

Since the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, nine unelected men and women on the supreme court have played God with innocent human life. They have invented laws that have condemned 56 million babies to painful deaths without trial. But the good news is that Congress has the power to legislatively overturn Roe v. Wade and end all abortion on demand.

And here’s how he defended his Life at Conception Act in the Senate:

The Life at Conception Act legislatively declares what most Americans believe and what science has long known – that human life begins at the moment of conception, and therefore is entitled to legal protection from that point forward. The right to life is guaranteed to all Americans in the Declaration of Independence and ensuring this is upheld is the Constitutional duty of all Members of Congress.

This is the kind of “compromise” -- Paul’s shift from taking a hard stance on criminalizing all abortion to his recent philosophical talk about putting his views in “too small of a box” -- that most angers personhood activists like Broun. They are considered politically convenient shifts that compromise the bottom line.

“The reason a lot of pro-life people are willing to compromise is because of that outside pressure,” according to Broun. “Whether it’s an endorsement from Concerned Women [for America] or the Family Research Council or another group, or it could be an endorsement of the U.S. Chamber [of Commerce] or it could be the endorsement of any group. Politicians, the major principle that they will not budge from is their reelection. So they will do whatever it takes to get the endorsements, the money that they need to raise.”

He is remarkably clear-eyed about what moves candidates like Paul to soften their tone. Much like Joni Ernst and Cory Gardner, Paul has used evasive language to put distance between himself and personhood because he recognizes that, while he has long advocated to make it the law of the land, it’s also a kind of political poison.

The concept of fetal personhood is so extreme that even anti-choice organizations like the Susan B. Anthony List, Americans United for Life and the National Right to Life Committee won’t really touch it during election years. And ballot initiatives that would make fetuses full citizens have failed repeatedly over the years, even in the reddest of red states.

Perhaps because the consequences of personhood legislation like Paul’s Life at Conception Act is extreme by any standard: if fetuses become legal persons, women who terminate their pregnancies could be charged with murder, common forms of birth control would be criminalized and all abortion would be banned without exception.

Candidates like Paul may want to minimize the extremity of the position, but there are already hundreds of cases across the country in which women have been arrested, jailed or otherwise stripped of their basic rights as a result of being pregnant. Personhood is the legal concept behind the forced detention of pregnant women suspected of using drugs and the use of so-called fetal homicide laws to incarcerate women who experience miscarriages and stillbirths. According to research compiled by National Advocates for Pregnant Women, between 1973 and 2005, there have been 413 documented cases in which a woman’s pregnancy was a necessary factor in criminal charges brought against her by the state. An additional 200 cases have been documented since 2005, and personhood -- fetal rights -- ground the charges.

And as the report lays out, the history of the personhood movement is also a history of activists going after more mainstream anti-choice groups and candidates for wavering in their commitment to criminalizing all abortion, and of mainstream organizations working to distance themselves as the conflict gets heated.

In 2007, Colorado Right to Life, once an affiliate of National Right to Life, took its national leadership to task for being insufficiently bold on personhood. Bob Enyert, a Denver pastor involved with the Colorado group, told the national board of directors that the mainstream movement “provided cover” to pro-choice politicians and doing little but to “prune the abortion week and sanction its root.”

Here’s what happened next, according to the report:

National Right to Life promptly voted to kick the Colorado group out of the organization. Colorado Right to Life then hired an Abraham Lincoln impersonator to accost conference-goers with a revised version of the Gettysburg Address: “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal ... no exceptions!”

From a distance, the anti-choice movement appears to be a profoundly disciplined bloc of politicians and activists united in a common, singular goal: criminalizing all abortion without exception. Through a number of different strategies -- like regulations that shut down clinics because of the size of a hallway and delay tactics like burdensome waiting periods and mandatory counseling -- the anti-abortion movement has managed to greatly restrict or virtually eliminate access to abortion in many states across the country.

But the reality is that the movement is actually quite fractured, with increasing pressure being brought to bear on the mainstream Republican party to remain pure to their extreme anti-choice views, even when it isn't politically convenient. This time around, the connection between the mainstream GOP and the fringe elements of the personhood movement may be harder to minimize since Paul is among the most visible of the Republican contenders and has an extensive and extreme record on the issue.

Try as he might to dodge with vague philosophical talk about “small boxes” and exceptions, statements Paul has made and policies he’s advocated for throughout his career leave little doubt about where he stands. And where he stands is where most of the Republican party stands -- even if they won't wear that in public.

“Even though anti-choice and pro-personhood groups are often at odds over their strategies, it’s unquestionable they are united by the same end goal: criminalizing abortion,” said Miranda Blue, Senior Researcher for Special Projects at People For the American Way Foundation. “By pushing a relentlessly uncompromising attack on reproductive health, the personhood movement has given cover and support to other anti-choice groups focused on gradually chipping away at choice. Ultimately, the efforts of personhood and anti-choice groups alike amount to a slow erosion of abortion access — and a dangerous attack on women’s health.”

The personhood movement may make its displeasure known if Paul continues to dodge on where he stands on the issue of making fertilized eggs full citizens, even though his record of support is clear. Because while their objectives may be the same, wavering from the bottom line to score political points is viewed as a betrayal, and Paul's ideological kin in the personhood movement don't take well to compromise.

“Compromise is not possible,” Daniel Becker of Georgia Right to Life wrote to explain why he was forming the National Personhood Alliance. “This is not like roads or highways or agricultural subsidies; when we compromise -- someone dies.”

Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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