Moment of Conception: How a Radical Anti-Abortion Movement Matured

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On April 17, 2007, the I Supreme Court upheld a national ban on an abortion procedure known as intact dilation and extraction. Anti-abortion groups, which successfully branded it "partial-birth abortion," had spent 15 years and more than a quarter-billion dollars getting Congress to pass the ban in 2003. The Court's 2007 ruling was the movement's greatest legal victory in decades, a significant step toward overturning Roe v. Wade. But not all abortion opponents were celebrating.

Among the unenthused was Brian Rohrbough, president of Colorado Right to Life. Rohrbough belongs to an absolutist wing of the movement that believes in "personhood"--the idea that fetuses are people from the moment of conception. After losing his son in the Columbine High School shootings in 1999, Rohrbough concluded that the legalized "killing of innocent children in the womb" had set America on a path of moral decline that allowed such violence to occur. For Rohrbough, the ban on partial-birth abortion was part of a failed strategy of whittling away at Roe. Worse, it was unconscionable, because going after one abortion procedure implied that others were acceptable.

With several like-minded activists, Rohrbough wrote a public letter to James Dobson, head of the Colorado-based evangelical powerhouse Focus on the Family, which had pushed the ban. The letter ran in newspapers in Colorado and around the country. "America has killed twenty million children during this long distraction, all in pursuit of a ban that from the beginning Never Had The Authority To Prevent Even A Single Abortion.... You joined together in calling evil good," Rohrbough wrote. "Please stop foisting onto the church the falsehood that this gruesome ruling will 'protect children.' This decision, to use your word, is more 'Naziesque' than the PBA [partial-birth abortion] it regulates."

Retaliation was swift. National Right to Life, whose support of the Court's ruling was also denounced in the letter, removed its Colorado chapter from the national organization. Mainstream anti-abortion groups stuck to their strategy of gradually weakening Roe until it could ultimately be repealed. But the rift over partial-birth abortion was evidence of a growing divide within the movement, and it energized personhood advocates to coalesce around a new strategy. "Partial-birth abortion was the perfect picture of the failure of the pro-life movement," says Bob Enyart, a spokesperson for the Colorado-based personhood group American Right to Life, which was created shortly after the Supreme Court decision as a rival to National Right to Life. "Personhood was the alternative."

Four and a half years later, the personhood movement is poised for its first major victory. On November 8 (after this magazine goes to press), Mississippi voters are expected to approve Amendment 26. The measure would establish the personhood of the fetus from the beginning of biological life and outlaw all abortions without exception.

Even for many anti-abortion crusaders, this is a stunning development. The movement had long shied away from fetal personhood, fearing that extreme positions on rape, incest, and life-of-mother exceptions could end up reaffirming Roe rather than overturning it. Equally worrying are the sweeping implications of personhood. It would outlaw the morning-after pill, as well as intrauterine devices (IUDs). It could make the birth-control pill illegal. Legal liability for obstetricians and gynecologists would be "through the roof," says Emilie Ailts, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice America's Colorado chapter. Other legal ramifications are vast: By NARAL's estimate, personhood in Colorado would alter as many as 20,000 laws. Women who have miscarriages could be prosecuted for homicide if anyone suspects reckless behavior or intentional harm to the fetus.

"At the time that the personhood movement started, it was a really radical, ultra-right-wing, anti-choice effort that even the normal anti-abortion groups did not support," says Kyle Mantyla, who reports for the blog Right Wing Watch. …