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Vague Language of N.D. 'Personhood' Amendment Could Muddle Intent for Voters

November 3, 2014 — Even though supporters of the antiabortion-rights "personhood" movement have never succeeded in passing a ballot measure or enacting legislation in any state, ambiguous wording in a North Dakota ballot initiative (Measure 1) could boost their chances on Tuesday by confusing voters, Politico Pro reports.

Colorado voters have rejected personhood amendments twice before, in 2008 and 2010, while Mississippi rejected a personhood amendment in 2011. Personhood advocates have failed in their attempts to place such amendments on the ballot in other states (Haberkorn, Politico Pro, 11/2). A personhood amendment is on the ballot in Colorado (Amendment 67) again this year, although some backers of the measure claim it would not affect abortion rights. Opponents say the Colorado measure, if enacted, would ban abortion and could restrict other medical services like in vitro fertilization and some methods of contraception (Women's Health Policy Report, 10/17).

N.D. Measure

In North Dakota, voters in Tuesday's election will consider a ballot measure that would change the state's constitution to state that "the inalienable right to life of every human being at any stage of development must be recognized and protected." North Dakota would be the only state with such a law if the ballot measure is approved (Women's Health Policy Report, 10/24). The amendment, if enacted and not stalled or blocked by litigation, would take effect in December.

North Dakotans Against Measure 1 has raised $829,786 in its campaign to defeat the ballot initiative, while North Dakota Choose Life has raised $588,601 in support of the measure (Redden, Mother Jones, 11/3). In addition, Planned Parenthood affiliates have raised nearly $1.4 million in their efforts to defeat the proposed amendment (Martin, The Atlantic, 11/1).

A University of North Dakota poll from early October found that about 50% of voters support the measure, 33% oppose it and 17% were undecided. However, a recent poll conducted for two North Dakota news organizations found that 45% oppose the amendment, 39% support it and 16% are undecided.

Antiabortion-Rights Opponents Divided Over Intent

According to Mother Jones, advocates of Measure 1 and press outlets in North Dakota have all described the measure as a "'personhood amendment,'" and the press conference touting the state Legislature vote to place it on the ballot included the groups Personhood USA and Personhood North Dakota (Mother Jones, 11/3).

However, antiabortion-rights groups now publicly disagree about whether the amendment should be considered a personhood measure. While Personhood USA has said the amendment is a referendum on personhood, the North Dakota Catholic Conference and North Dakota Choose Life, the measure's main sponsor in Colorado, disagree.

North Dakota Catholic Conference Executive Director Christopher Dodson said, "This is not personhood," adding, "The Catholic bishops and Right to Life and Concerned Women for America have never supported personhood," yet they support Measure 1 (Politico Pro, 11/2). Similarly, North Dakota Choose Life released a memo stating that Measure 1 "is not a personhood amendment" (Mother Jones, 11/3).

In addition, abortion-rights opponents have argued that the ballot initiative would help ensure that the state's current abortion restrictions -- including those related to parental involvement, sex-selective abortion bans and mandatory waiting periods -- are not overturned by the courts (The Atlantic, 11/1).

Vague Language Could Be Misleading

The North Dakota measure's vague wording is "exactly what some of the most die-hard [personhood] activists want at this point" to further the debate over personhood in the courts and in the state Legislature, and it could make voters more likely to support the amendment, according to Politico Pro (Politico Pro, 11/2).

Elizabeth Nash, senior state issues associate at the Guttmacher Institute, said, "Part of the reason they may have changed some of the messaging is because they've been defeated in Colorado and Mississippi. But the measure is very similar to the personhood amendments you saw in those states."

Nash added that the ballot initiative, if approved, "would be a real blow to women's rights and psychological blow to reproductive health advocates, the idea that we would lose one of these personhood fights" (Mother Jones, 11/3).

Abortion-rights supporters have also said that the amendment's broad language could allow the state government to interfere in other medical services, including end-of-life care, access to contraception and IVF. The state's three specialists on IVF have stated that they will stop conducting the procedure in the state if Measure 1 passes.

Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, said that "[t]he principles established by Measure 1 [would] have exactly the same effect as other proposed so-called personhood measures" and that the amendment could result in the increased prosecution of pregnant women in North Dakota, a trend already seen elsewhere, for allegedly endangering their fetuses (The Atlantic, 11/1).