Personhood proponents submit 139,650 sigs

Measure for 2014 ballot focuses on fetal homicide
The Colorado Statesman

Motivated by a grassroots uprising this summer that ousted two sitting Democratic state senators, proponents of a ballot initiative that would ask voters in 2014 to define an unborn child as a “person” say they are likely to target Republicans who don’t support their anti-abortion movement.

So-called “personhood” proponents on Monday submitted 139,650 signatures to the Secretary of State’s office, far more than the 86,105 needed to qualify for the ballot. The petition drive marks the highest number of signatures collected for any pro-life ballot initiative in the history of Colorado, according to organizers.

The personhood drive for 2014 is a bit different than in years past, this time focused more on so-called “fetal homicide.” The face of the initiative is Heather Surovik, who was eight months pregnant last summer with her son Brady when a drunk driver slammed into her car in Longmont, taking the “short life” of Brady.

Heather Surovik, left, and her mother, Terry Koester, stand with Surovik’s two children outside the Secretary of State’s office on Monday in Denver after submitting signatures to place a new attempt at personhood on the 2014 ballot.
Photo by Peter Marcus/The Colorado Statesman

Proponents say they need personhood in Colorado so that prosecutors can 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, but not murder. Proponents believe personhood would change that.

The pro-life crusaders ran into trouble last year when they pushed a more straightforward personhood initiative. Their petition drive was deemed insufficient by the secretary’s office. Proponents had submitted 106,119 signatures, but the secretary’s office only certified 82,246.

But with nearly 140,000 signatures this year, organizers have a comfortable cushion.

In comparison, proponents behind a ballot drive this year to raise taxes by $950 million for schools submitted 165,710 signatures in August after paying a canvassing firm at least $779,047 for petition gathering.

Personhood supporters, however, relied on volunteers. Its issue committee, A Voice For Brady, listed only $351 in contributions as of its last filing on July 15. The next filing is due on Oct. 15. A supporting issue committee, Colorado Right to Life, listed only $4,606 in contributions for the cycle.

Keith Mason, president of Personhood USA, said his organization and its followers feel empowered after gun rights activists and liberty groups were able to take down Senate President John Morse and Sen. Angela Giron last month with limited financing compared to recall opponents. Similar to personhood, the efforts were assembled by a grassroots base that felt overlooked by state officeholders.

Mason points out that his volunteers inserted themselves into the recall elections, where personhood once again became an issue. Political attack ads highlighted the Republican successor candidates’ support for personhood. Bernie Herpin in Colorado Springs and George Rivera in Pueblo faced the assaults.

Herpin found himself on the defensive, vowing that he did not support personhood. But Rivera unapologetically stated his support for the drive.

In response, Mason said personhood supporters sent volunteers to Pueblo to help Rivera, but ignored Herpin in Colorado Springs because he rejected the initiative.

The end result of the recall election was surprising. Morse was recalled by only 319 votes, 51 percent to 49 percent, in a Republican-leaning district, while Giron was recalled by a remarkable 4,075 votes, 56 percent to 44 percent, in a Democratic-leaning district.

“The biggest difference was that we turned our people out in Pueblo,” said Mason. “Because Bernie turned his back on personhood we didn’t turn people out in Colorado Springs.

“I’m not going to help, I’m not going to reward candidates who back away from the issue,” he continued.

Mason believes the political tide has turned in Colorado following the recall elections.

“The pendulum swings,” he said. “The backlash against Angela Giron was shocking.”

Personhood leaders have turned their attention to a U.S. Senate primary in which Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck and state Sens. Owen Hill and Randy Baumgardner are vying for the Republican Party’s nod to unseat Democrat Mark Udall.

Personhood became a flash point in the 2010 U.S. Senate race between Buck and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet. Bennet narrowly won the race 48.08 percent to 46.4 percent, or 29,893 votes.

Buck found himself caught in a debate over personhood after Bennet attacked him for his support. Buck’s campaign later softened its stance, saying he would not vote for personhood.

Just how that issue might play out in the Republican primary is uncertain. Buck is facing off against two pro-life Republicans, according to Colorado Right to Life, which conducts candidate evaluations.

Mason affirmed that he and his organization plan on holding the candidates to the coals over their stance on personhood, especially after the 2010 U.S. Senate race.

“This is different than the first time,” explained Mason. “They’re going to have to look Heather in the face… if Ken wants to turn his back on this effort, he’s going to have to look Heather in the face and say, ‘I don’t support this and I don’t think your son is a person.’”

Mason points out that proponents collected nearly 140,000 signatures, which is enough to swing elections, adding that Buck only lost in 2010 by about 1.5 percent of the vote.

“That’s something any Senate candidate is going to have to pay attention to…” said Mason.

“Ken Buck is a really interesting case study,” he continued. “He used personhood to get elected during the primary and then during the general he backed off… We make up way more than 1.5 percent of the vote here in Colorado… And so it was a critical error on his part, and it would be the critical error if future candidates try to go down that path.”

For his part, Buck says he is absolutely pro-life. But he would not directly address whether he plans on supporting the personhood drive for 2014.

“I’ll answer when they ask…” he said. “I’m pro-life and I have not been shy of that, and frankly the Democrats haven’t been shy about painting me as pro-life. I don’t… lack credibility on that issue, or I don’t think anybody on our side thinks that I have been obtuse when it comes to what my position is.”

Buck adds that as a prosecutor he is supportive of fetal homicide legislation passed by the legislature this past session. The Democratic-sponsored House Bill 1154, signed by Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, offers 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 of the Rocky Mountains.

The law 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 pregnancy.

“The fetal homicide bill that was passed gives us the ability to file charges…” said Buck. “I’d have to talk to them and see what their point is, it sounds like they are approaching this issue from a different angle in hopes to gain some support, but I have been very supportive of the fetal homicide bill, as was the legislature this year.”

Baumgardner, who has supported personhood in the past, according to Colorado Right to Life, was also hesitant to discuss the personhood issue without hearing directly from proponents. But he indicated that he believes an unborn child is a person.

“Once something starts moving inside of you, it’s alive... that’s just science, it’s alive,” said Baumgardner.

“If you’re drunk and you hit a mother that is weeks away, days away, and it costs the mother the child, then you should be charged with two charges,” he added, stopping short of saying there should be a murder charge.

“Tell them to call me and I’ll tell them where I stand,” Baumgardner continued, referring to proponents. “If they want to look me in the eye, you tell them to call me and come and see me and look me in the eye and I’ll tell them.”

Hill did not return multiple phone messages left by The Colorado Statesman to his cell phone seeking comment.

A mother’s cry for support

At the heart of the initiative is Surovik, who lobbied the legislature this year to pass a different fetal homicide bill. She had hoped that lawmakers would have passed House Bill 1032, sponsored by Rep. Janak Joshi, R-Colorado Springs. The bill died in a Democratic-controlled committee.

HB 1032 would have allowed prosecutors to collect evidence and file a murder charge for killing an unborn child. Gary Sheats, the man accused of causing the tragic crash that killed Brady, 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.

Surovik and her supporters have several issues with HB 1154, the fetal homicide bill that the legislature did back this year. They do not believe that it goes far enough.

Personhood proponents 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.

They also are concerned that it repeals Colorado criminal law relating to abortion.

“HB 1154 eliminates criminal liabilities for abortionists who kill women during an abortion, allows surgical and chemical abortions to be performed on minors without parental consent, legalizes the sale of chemical abortion drugs to minors and allows doctors to operate clinics… by completely exempting them as long as they claim to be providing ‘medical services,’” opined Jennifer Mason, spokeswoman for Personhood USA.

Proponents believe personhood is needed with the Brady Amendment to change the state constitution to add “person” and “child” to 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.”

The initiative would effectively ban abortion in Colorado, though proponents do not claim that to be their sole motivation.

“HB 1154 is one of the most offensive and deceptive bills to ever be passed in Colorado,” said an emotional Surovik, who spoke with tears in her eyes at a news conference Monday outside the secretary of state’s office. “The Brady Amendment is even more important now than ever. We must pass the Brady Amendment to protect pregnant women in Colorado, and we are here today to be a voice for Brady.

“This is really just getting justice, and Brady deserves it,” Surovik continued. “All of those babies that have died from acts of violence, domestic violence, everything, they deserve to have justice, those moms deserve to have justice…”

The news conference included proponents, supporters and members of the faith community. But there were no judicial representatives present.

“This has been a movement of the people of Colorado, and so the people have told Heather to put this on the ballot, and that’s why the people are here honoring Brady’s life and celebrating today,” explained Jennifer Mason.

Proponents did not announce any major endorsements. In the past, they even had trouble earning support from the Archdiocese of Denver, which would not endorse the initiative last year. The Colorado Republican Party also said it would not be focusing on personhood this year.

Opposition mounts campaign

Opposition, led by pro-choice groups such as Planned Parenthood Votes Colorado and NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado, are readying for yet another campaign against personhood.

The groups point out that over the years, Colorado voters strongly rejected initiatives. Voters killed an initiative in 2008, when 73 percent rejected the measure, and again in 2010, when 71 percent of voters did likewise.

As in the past, opponents believe that 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.

Vicki Cowart, president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood Votes Colorado, said the tweak in personhood language this year aims to deceive voters.

“In 2008 and 2010, we educated voters that this measure punishes women who are victims of rape or incest and who become pregnant by these violent acts,” said Cowart. “Coloradans know it is wrong to force women to carry these pregnancies to term and to take away a woman’s ability to make her own personal decisions in these difficult situations.

“When Coloradans know the truth, they vote to allow a woman to make decisions about her health with her family, her doctor, and her faith, and without intrusion from the government, court or lawyers,” she continued.

Karen Middleton, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado, said she is getting tired of battling against an initiative that Colorado voters regularly reject.

“What part of ‘no’ don’t they understand?” she asked. “Voters in Colorado, men and women alike, have overwhelmingly rejected this initiative both times it has been on the ballot because we believe that medical decisions are best left to a woman, her family and her doctor, not politicians.

“No matter what they call it, if personhood becomes law in Colorado it will ban abortion even in the tragic circumstances of rape and incest, ban common forms of birth control, and ban in vitro fertilization,” Middleton continued. “Any way you look at it, inserting the government and politicians into women’s personal medical decisions is a bad idea.”

Proponents reject the claims by opponents, pointing out that there has never been a legal precedent substantiating any of the perceived consequences, and that law reviews have deemed the consequences either impossible or extremely unlikely.

Proponents also ask opponents whether they consider Brady to have been a person.

Cathy Alderman, vice president of public affairs for Planned Parenthood Votes Colorado, acknowledged that there are differing views on when life begins, but said laws should not dictate the answer.

“There are different religious, moral and personal beliefs about this issue and no one belief should be imposed on all of Coloradans,” said Alderman. “And, it is certainly not appropriate to put one specific belief about this in the state constitution thereby ignoring the diversity of others’ beliefs and values.

“Ms. Surovik believed that Brady was a person and that was a decision she was able to make on her own, in accordance with her beliefs and values,” she continued. “We want to ensure that each woman in this state gets to make that decision in the same way Ms. Surovik did, based on her own personal beliefs.”

Alderman called Surovik’s situation “tragic,” but said legislation such as HB 1154 offers protections and justice in such situations.

“The law was carefully crafted so as not to restrict access to reproductive health care,” explained Alderman. “Specifically, [HB 1154] does not establish fetal personhood; it will not criminalize women in regards to their own pregnancies; and it will not criminalize doctors who specialize in reproductive health care. Instead the bill appropriately addresses tragic circumstances where a woman’s pregnancy is abruptly ended by the intentional, reckless, or careless criminal behavior of another.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com