North Dakota is poised to become the first state in the country to recognize a fertilized egg as a person. At least, that’s what opponents say about a controversial ballot measure to amend state’s constitution. Supporters say that’s total bunk.
The proposal, known as Measure 1, would add a single sentence to the North Dakota constitution: “The inalienable right to life of every human being at any stage of development must be recognized and protected.” But the two camps fiercely disagree over whether this language makes Measure 1 a “personhood” amendment—the latest in a series of state proposals defining life as beginning at the moment of conception and giving legal rights to fertilized eggs.
If there was ever a year when that distinction mattered, it’s 2014. Democrats have slammed Joni Ernst, the Republican pick for Senate in Iowa, for supporting personhood. And they’ve hammered Corey Gardner, the Republican nominee for Senate in Colorado, for his past support of a personhood bill. Personhood amendments were developed with the intention of kicking off a legal fight that would eventually overturn Roe v. Wade. But they have failed all three times they have gone before voters—twice in Colorado, and once in Mississippi. Fans of Measure 1 fully recognize the term’s toxicity: ND Choose Life, the official ballot committee for supporters, released a memo arguing that Measure 1 “is not a personhood amendment.” And Christopher Dodson, director of the North Dakota Catholic Conference, says that Measure 1 opponents use the word “personhood” to describe the amendment “because they’re trying to portray it as extreme.”
To reproductive rights advocates and opponents of the amendment, that’s just semantics. “Part of the reason they may have changed some of the messaging is because they’ve been defeated in Colorado and Mississippi,” says Elizabeth Nash, the senior state issues associate at the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights. “But the measure is very similar to the personhood amendments you saw in those states.”