Personhood pushers prepare for the polls — again for 2014

And the opposition is readying for the challenge once petitions are certified
The Colorado Statesman

So-called “personhood” proponents are back at it again, trying to convince Colorado voters to define an unborn child as a “person.” But this time they’re repackaging their message, shining the spotlight on “fetal homicide” with a mother who lost her unborn son to a drunk driving accident.

Heather Surovik was eight months pregnant last summer with her son, Brady, when a drunk driver slammed into her car in Longmont. Her life changed immediately when she woke up in the hospital to find that the accident had taken the “short life” of Brady.

Surovik immediately snapped into action, marching through the halls of the Capitol this year to testify on a measure that she believes would have provided justice. She had hoped that House Bill 1032 would pass, allowing charges to be filed in connection with offenses or negligence that caused the death of or injuries to unborn babies.

But the bill, sponsored by Rep. Janak Joshi, R-Colorado Springs, was killed in a Democratic-controlled committee, despite Surovik’s emotional testimony in which she showed pictures of her unborn son.

HB 1032 would have allowed prosecutors to collect evidence and file a murder charge for killing an unborn child. In Surovik’s case, prosecutors could have charged the drunk driver with vehicular manslaughter.

Gary Sheats, the man accused of causing the horrific crash, pled guilty to two counts of felony vehicular assault and one count of driving under the influence of alcohol. But he committed suicide before sentencing.

Instead of HB 1032, the legislature this year backed Democratic-sponsored House Bill 1154, which was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, offering prosecutors tools to file charges against those who intentionally or recklessly cause a woman to lose her pregnancy. The measure was considered a compromise because it steered away from the personhood issue and earned the support of Planned Parenthood.

HB 1154 creates a new category of crime: unlawful termination of pregnancy in the first, second, third and fourth degrees; vehicular unlawful termination of pregnancy; aggravated vehicular unlawful termination of pregnancy; and careless driving resulting in unlawful termination of a pregnancy.

But Surovik and her supporters don’t believe the legislation goes far enough. They feel that instead of offering prosecutors the ability to file murder and other more serious charges, the measure simply enforces a $2,000 fine associated with crimes related to the unborn.

“Gov. Hickenlooper signed a bill that says Brady is only worth $2,000 — that’s offensive,” opined Keith Mason, president of Personhood USA.

“My son’s life was worth infinitely more than $2,000,” added Surovik.

Joshi maintains that his HB 1032 was simply a criminal justice bill that made no mention of the personhood issue, while offering prosecutors better options. He does not believe that HB 1154 changed anything.

“Show me in that bill where there is a murder charge?” asked Joshi. “If you kill an unborn child, that bill does not do anything for the unborn child. So, that bill did not change anything.”

The ‘Brady Amendment’

After HB 1032’s death, Surovik filed an amendment to the Colorado Constitution that she believes would better protect pregnant mothers and their unborn children from criminal offenses and negligent and wrongful acts. It is being called the “Brady Amendment.”

“When I tried to change our state laws to protect babies like Brady in January, abortion advocates and their allies at the Capitol testified that I had merely ‘lost a pregnancy,’” explained Surovik. “The Brady Amendment calls for fetal homicide laws to be applied to unborn victims of violence in Colorado.”

Specifically, the amendment would add the words “person” and “child” in state criminal code and the Colorado Wrongful Death Act to include unborn children.

The proposed amendment would read, “In the interest of the protection of pregnant mothers and their unborn children from criminal offenses and negligent and wrongful acts, the words ‘person’ and ‘child’ in the Colorado criminal code and the Colorado Wrongful Death Act must include unborn human beings.”

Signatures are due to the secretary of state’s office on Sept. 30. Proponents acknowledge that their mostly volunteer effort could gain better momentum, explaining that they need more signatures. They would like to turn in 120,000 signatures to play it safe. They need 86,105 valid signatures to qualify for the 2014 ballot.

Proponents ran into trouble last year when their personhood petition was deemed insufficient by the secretary’s office. They submitted 106,119 signatures, but the secretary’s office only certified 82,246, falling short of the 86,105 needed.

Proponents filed a lawsuit challenging the decision, but the Denver District Court dismissed the case. Proponents are considering following through with a federal lawsuit as well. In the meantime, however, they are focused on their 2014 definition of person and child.

“The opportunity just sort of presented itself, we didn’t seek it out,” attested Mason. “Brady resembles the consequences of not passing personhood in Colorado, and all these cases where pregnant women are injured and their child is lost, their kids have no justice; no recourse, and it’s just an aspect of personhood.”

Mason stopped short of saying that the measure aims to ban abortion in Colorado, though he acknowledged that Surovik and the personhood movement is very much pro-life. He said the state could still use a separate personhood amendment with the specific aim of banning abortion, as has been presented to voters in the past.

Over the years, Colorado voters strongly rejected personhood initiatives. Voters killed an initiative in 2008, when 73 percent rejected the measure, and again in 2010, when 71 percent of voters did likewise.

“Her motivation is to be a voice for her son,” Mason said of Surovik. “She is a pro-lifer; she’s obviously pro-life. But her motivation is that she wants to change things in Colorado so that a situation like Brady’s accident doesn’t happen again.

“They’re going to throw any kind of mud against the wall,” Mason added of those who will call the effort simply an initiative to ban abortion. “Planned Parenthood… they don’t want people to focus on kids like Brady, which is also a very real aspect of this situation.”

Mason does acknowledge that voters have widely rejected personhood in the past, and that his organization’s messaging must continue to evolve.

“We’re gaining; we’re changing people’s minds every time we do it,” he said. “I’ll continue to do that, I think that’s worthwhile. And ultimately what we’re about is to change hearts and minds and the mindset here in Colorado.”

Bob Enyart, a controversial pro-life advocate who is assisting with the petition drive, is unapologetic about acknowledging that the initiative repackages the same personhood beliefs.

“We’re experimenting with different wording, and so this is a personhood amendment because it defines ‘person’ for the purpose of the criminal code to be every human being, and so it is 100 percent a personhood amendment, but it is coming at it from the fetal homicide and crimes against the unborn child perspective,” explained Enyart, speaking on behalf of Colorado Right to Life.

“The Brady Amendment is about protecting all unborn children and getting justice for all unborn children who are victims, and so it’s about Brady, and it’s about all kids, protecting them from violent acts and crimes,” he continued. “So, sure, we’re trying to protect every child by love and by law — not just Brady… No one has the right to kill a baby.”

Enyart, a talk radio host, has made several headlines over the years, including being a proponent of physical punishment of children. He was convicted of misdemeanor child abuse in 1994 after spanking his girlfriend’s child with a belt and served a jail sentence. Enyart also pickets the homes of abortion doctors.

Personhood an uphill climb

Personhood supporters believe their movement is growing, not just in Colorado, but also nationally. The North Dakota legislature recently approved a personhood amendment this year, which will appear on the 2014 ballot. State lawmakers in Iowa and Wisconsin are also considering amendments that would apply “person” to all human being from the point of conception.

Congress is also considering a personhood bill that would grant constitutional rights to the unborn.

But the personhood journey is still a massive uphill climb. Just as in Colorado, voters in Mississippi overwhelmingly rejected an initiative. Ballot initiatives failed to advance in Ohio, Nevada and Florida as well.

And personhood bills failed the legislatures in Alabama, Georgia, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Washington this year.

Part of the problem is that more mainstream pro-life groups have not adopted the personhood movement. Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family did not return a request for comment left by The Colorado Statesman, and the Archdiocese of Denver declined comment.

The Archdiocese of Denver last year would not endorse personhood. But with the aim this year set on fetal homicide, it is possible that the church might get behind it.

“While we share the ultimate objective of this effort i.e., to legally recognize the rights of the unborn, we do not, however, think that this strategy will provide a realistic opportunity for reversing Roe v. Wade,” Bishop James D. Conley wrote last year about personhood. “Instead, we believe that our limited resources can be more effectively used in pursuing a fetal homicide law, an ultrasound and informed consent law, and other constructive legal measures.”

Another problem has been gaining widespread support within the mainstream Republican Party. At past Republican state conventions, delegates have overwhelmingly passed pro-life resolutions affirming, “Life begins at conception.” But over the years, GOP candidates have backed away from publically supporting personhood specifically.

U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, last year said he would not endorse the initiative, despite his pro-life stance and past support for the effort. And former Seventh Congressional District candidate Joe Coors also would not endorse the initiative last year, despite past support.

Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck also found trouble in 2010 when he ran against Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet. Buck softened his stance on personhood after Bennet attacked Buck for his position. Buck’s campaign later backtracked, saying he would not vote for personhood. Buck on Wednesday filed paperwork to run for U.S. Senate again in 2014 against Democratic incumbent Mark Udall.

Colorado Republican Party Chairman Ryan Call said he does not expect to see Republican candidates publically supporting personhood in 2014, noting that the party is focused on other issues.

“I don’t anticipate very many Republican candidates doing so,” said Call. “Our focus in the upcoming campaign is where it ought to be, on the overreaching of the state and federal government, the tax and regulatory regime that’s stifling small businesses, the need to improve the quality of education and help the lives of individual people and families and the citizens of our state.”

Former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, a Republican who is running for governor in 2014, declined comment until Hickenlooper publically speaks out on abortion. Tancredo points out that OnTheIssues.org does not have a recorded stance for Hickenlooper on abortion.

State Sen. Greg Brophy of Wray, who is also seeking the Republican Party’s nomination for governor, did not return a request for comment left by The Statesman.

Personhood proponents are also likely to face criticism again from the Republican Majority for Choice, the nation’s leading Republican pro-choice organization.

“As Republicans, we cannot sit by while single-issue fundamentalists dramatically change our state constitution,” said Amanda Mountjoy, Republican Majority for Choice Colorado chairwoman.

“The problem with the personhood amendment lies in its fundamental contradiction,” continued Mountjoy. “It poses as a measure designed to protect basic rights. In fact, personhood would violate the rights of Colorado women by granting competing rights to a fertilized egg, and would put government smack dab in the middle of medical decisions…”

But Enyart remains hopeful that the personhood movement will adopt believers: “Scores of individual pro-life leaders, activist leaders, have become advocates of personhood. So, there is a rift, but eventually the personhood movement will say to everybody else, ‘Welcome aboard,’” he opined.

He likened the personhood struggle to that of the American abolitionists: “There were about half-a-dozen political alternatives to abolition and the majority of the anti-slavery movement was against abolition… So, all these other anti-slavery groups that opposed abolition, they all had their ideas on how to regulate slavery. But history tells us… the only anti-slavery policy that actually made a difference was abolition.

“Human rights movements have a way of making bureaucrats like Supreme Court justices irrelevant,” Enyart continued. “We’re not going to wait for the [U.S. Supreme Court] to apologize for Roe v. Wade. We’re going to make them irrelevant.”

Opposition readying for challenge

Opponents have not yet formally launched their campaign. But they are already readying for battle.

As in the past, opponents believe that any personhood language would not only ban abortion, but also potentially prohibit birth control pills, in vitro fertilization and life-saving medical procedures. They suggest that the amendment could even criminalize doctors, as well as women who miscarry.

Proponents, however, say spreading concerns around such unintended consequences is “fear-mongering.”

Still, opponents say they will need to educate voters on what they perceive to be the consequences. For one, Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, who sponsored HB 1154 along with Rep. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette, does not believe there is a need for the Brady Amendment. She suggests that her measure significantly protects pregnant women and provides a course for justice.

“The bill that Rep. Foote and I passed did exactly what it was intended to do, which was allow a defendant to be prosecuted when his or her actions cause a woman’s pregnancy to terminate,” said Levy. “It did everything that was missing in Colorado law in terms of punishing somebody for causing a woman to lose her pregnancy.”

Levy does not believe for one second that personhood proponents solely have the interest of criminal justice in mind.

“This effort is just another effort through the back door to criminalize abortion,” she opined. “But it goes even further, as far as I can tell, than any other effort by having no definition of an unborn child. So, when would these rights attach? That’s a completely open question.”

Levy acknowledges that her bill does not specifically address murder. But she points out that the new law does allow for consecutive sentences provided that the pregnant woman was harmed.

Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, along with its political arm, Planned Parenthood Votes Colorado, will lead the opposition, as it has in the past. Its issue committee, Protect Families Protect Choices, will also be utilized for the effort.

The committee had about $21,000 available as of last month. Proponents have only about $4,000 between its issue committees, Colorado Right to Life and a Voice For Brady.

Monica McCafferty, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, acknowledged the emotional element attached to Surovik’s story. But she does not believe a personhood proposal is the way to address concerns.

“I do want to express my deepest sympathies for the tragic case that happened, which was obviously very tragic, and sympathy goes to her and her case,” stated McCafferty. “But House Bill 1154 also passed this legislative session and we do hope that voters do understand that we do have provisions now that really address the gap that had existed when tragic cases like that could not fully come to justice.”

McCafferty believes that voters will recognize what they have in the past, which is that personhood is too extreme for Colorado.

“Those who oppose a woman’s ability to make personal, private medical decisions for themselves, we often see these type of tactics that are misleading, misguided, yet aim to bring up a lot of emotions,” remarked McCafferty. “So, we’re definitely aware of that, but like with all of the other personhood ballot initiatives, we have educated Colorado voters. Colorado voters are smart and they have recognized that Personhood Colorado has tried these attempts three times now and it’s something that Colorado voters have yet to have any appetite for.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com