A proposed fetal personhood amendment, which would outlaw abortion and some forms of birth control, has been called radical and outrageous by pro-choice activists. But even staunchly anti-abortion organizations and legislators are expressing concerns with the initiative, which they fear could end up backfiring.
The personhood movement is largely a grassroots effort. In Florida, it is organized by Port St. Lucie-area Pastor Bryan Longworth, who maintains the Personhood Floride website, along with a personal site and blog archiving all of his sermons. Longworth planned a “big push” for the initiative in January to coincide with the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, in which pastors from all corners of the state would hand out petitions to gather support for his group. (Calls to Longworth to determine the number of petitions collected thus far went unreturned.)
The initiative needs 676,811 valid petitions for ballot access. When 10 percent of that number is reached (67,683 petitions), the Personhood Amendment will be reviewed by Attorney General Pam Bondi. The state elections website shows the number of valid signatures remains zero, but numbers are unofficial till the initiative receives certification and a ballot number.
Since members of the legislature appear wary of backing the initiative, Personhood Florida could attempt to team up with a larger, more powerful organization. The American Life League, a Catholic nonprofit, hasn’t specified the extent to which it plans to associate itself with the amendment, but its legislative liaison did say that the group expected “to continue [its] involvement in states pursuing personhood across the nation.”
Other groups, like many state legislators, are opting to distance themselves from endorsing the amendment.
“While we applaud their efforts, we have not officially endorsed the initiative,” says Sheila Hopkins, associate director for the Florida Catholic Conference. ”We feel it has unintended consequences and we think that the District Court would strike it down because of Roe v. Wade.”
In 2009, a group of nine Florida bishops gave a statement on behalf of the Conference regarding a personhood amendment:
The Catholic Bishops of Florida believe in the full legal recognition of the right to life of every unborn child and the defense of human life in all its stages, from conception to natural death. For many years, we have worked to promote a human life amendment to the U.S. Constitution. At the same time, we believe that our laws and our state constitution must be changed prudently, giving full consideration to unintended consequences that may result from well intended actions.
While we sincerely respect the goal to amend the Florida Constitution so as to acknowledge full human rights for every human being, after careful consideration we do not support the currently proposed amendment. It is our opinion, and that of the legal experts with whom we have consulted, that passage of this amendment would not achieve the goal of overturning Roe v. Wade. [Emphasis added.]
John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, echoes the conference’s caution about endorsing the amendment. “The FFPC supports the intent, but not the language of the current Florida Personhood Amendment,” he says.
Like Hopkins, Stemberger fears that a challenge to Roe v. Wade could end up backfiring, and would ultimately weaken the anti-abortion cause. “Until a clear pro-life majority exists on the U.S. Supreme Court, we feel it is not wise nor prudent to invoke a challenge to Roe v. Wade because a pro-abortion rights Court may root the abortion right in the Equal Protection Clause, making it stronger and more powerful than Roe ever was,” Stemberger says.