A 20-year-old law student has become a cause célèbre in the anti-abortion movement for her efforts to have the state Constitution define fertilized eggs as people — a tactic spreading nationwide in bids to neutralize the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion.
The measure spearheaded by Kristi Burton would give fertilized eggs state protections of inalienable rights, justice and due process, and she needs 76,000 signatures to get it on the state ballot next November.
Similar efforts are under way in Georgia, Michigan, Mississippi and Oregon.
"I wouldn't be surprised if we saw the awakening of a sleeping giant here as conservatives come out to vote on this because of the purity of the bill and because it's a no-nonsense amendment," said Keith Mason, a veteran of grass-roots efforts defending Ten Commandments displays and parental notification laws. He is helping the petition effort.
Burton's so-called human life amendment doesn't mention abortion. She insists her only aim is to define when human life begins, and any discussion about abortion is up to lawmakers, she said.
"It's a concrete point in time that we can point to. It's at the moment of conception, life begins and at that moment we need to protect it. If we don't do that, then anyone can take away people's lives at other stages," Burton said.
A decades-old approach
Abortion rights groups say the measure would hamper in-vitro fertilization and stem cell research. They say it also could affect birth control because the most widely used form of contraception works by preventing fertilized eggs from attaching to the uterus.
Burton's strategy also diverges from a decades-old approach among anti-abortion activists of trying to incrementally regulate abortions.
"Once you have the principle enshrined in a state constitution that flies in the face of Roe, that would be the test case that would go before the Supreme Court," said Brian Rooney of the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Thomas More Law Center, which has written similar proposals for other states.
Amendments that attack Roe head-on revive an old strategy that Rooney said was abandoned by the National Right to Life Committee, the largest of the anti-abortion groups formed in the 1970s to challenge Roe v. Wade.
James Bopp Jr., general counsel for the NRLC, said efforts to get state laws that would ban abortion outright "divert our attention and resources into feudal strategies" that would languish in the courts for years.
Instead, Bopp said the NRLC is working on banning partial birth abortions, providing information about fetal pain, and promoting the use of ultrasounds to show women the fetus' heartbeat. The hope is that women planning to have abortions would change their minds.
"Our efforts to educate and regulate are preparing for the day when we can overturn Roe v. Wade," Bopp said. "The reality is we can't now, because the Supreme Court is unwilling."
Such incremental strategies aren't enough for Burton, who claims no affiliation with any outside anti-abortion group. The home-schooled student says she first became aware of the cause at age 13, when in 2000 Colorado voters rejected an amendment calling for a 24-hour waiting period for women seeking abortions.
"I really believe every time in history we live in, there are people that need to be saved," she said. "In our time in history in America it is the unborn."
In Mississippi, which along with North and South Dakota has only one abortion provider, an effort to put a human life amendment to a vote fizzled in 2005. Supporters have until January to turn in signatures to place the issue on the ballot next year.
Legislative efforts are under way in Alabama and Georgia but died in Montana, while a petition in Michigan failed to muster enough signatures to get on the ballot. In Oregon, the Thomas More Law Center is challenging the state attorney general's rejection of the initiative.
Human life amendment ‘has already been tested’
"Human life amendments have been bouncing around in one way or another since Roe v. Wade," said Susan Hill, president of the Raleigh, N.C.-based National Women's Health Organization, which is the sole abortion provider in Mississippi. If passed, a human life amendment would "be ruled unconstitutional at this point because it has already been tested."
In Colorado, longtime independent pollster Floyd Ciruli thinks backers of Burton's measure will find it difficult to muster enough votes.
"A direct attack would probably serve the interest of supporters of abortion because I think it would be much easier for them to rally, whereas a more subtle challenge could likely slip under the radar," Ciruli said.