War of the Wombs

Article excerpt

Byline: Abigail Pesta

The battle for 'personhood' heats up.

It's an awkward moment at the Cheesecake Factory for Keith Mason. Over dinner in Denver recently, his wife, Jennifer, mentions she'll be giving birth to their fourth child in August. Mason, a clean-cut guy with the unflappable air of a college quarterback, suddenly flaps. "Wow," he says. "August? I guess I've been busy."

The couple laughs. In the four years since Mason launched the pro-life group Personhood USA, he has been crisscrossing the country to convince voters that the best way to overturn Roe v. Wade, the ruling that legalized abortion, is to define human embryos as people from the moment of fertilization. The group has helped spark 22 "personhood" bills and ballot initiatives; while none has passed, in each ballot vote on personhood, the margin of defeat has declined. His group is now collecting signatures for ballot efforts in Colorado, Ohio, and Montana for the November elections and in Florida for 2014. "Wait and watch us grow," he says confidently. "We're like a weed."

Personhood efforts have existed for decades, but they have never taken hold in the public imagination the way Mason's work has. Nor have they been so present in the pro-life discourse. "They're saying out loud what many anti-choice activists believe but don't say upfront--they want to ban abortion in all circumstances," says Donna Crane, a policy director at the advocacy group NARAL Pro-Choice America. "In some ways, it's the more honest conversation to have." And it has gathered supporters in this election season who include Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry. (Mitt Romney has demurred, but Mason says he is "hammering away" at the nominee.)

Mason, the man at the heart of the maelstrom, is part preacher, part hipster. A charismatic, green-eyed 31-year-old, he tools around town on a vintage motorbike, loves the metal band Deftones, and peppers his speech with gee-whiz phrases like "cool stuff, man" and the occasional biblical teaching. He, his 29-year-old wife, and his 34-year-old legal counsel, Gualberto Garcia Jones (who wears a backward pageboy cap and is also a sculptor), hope their youth will help recruit others like them to the team.

Pensive and pretty with long brown hair and dark eyes, Mason's wife, Jennifer, is the group's communications director. Her pro-life affinity started when she was a girl in California and learned that her mother had had an abortion; she became a full-fledged activist as a teenager, after seeing a graphic image.

Mason's awareness of abortion also began early on. Growing up in an evangelical family in Aurora, Colo., he found a postcard wedged in the pages of his mother's Bible showing "a little boy with his head missing," he says. "I was 8 years old," he recalls today, at the Personhood USA headquarters in a Denver office park. Mason found the abortion photo "deeply disturbing," but didn't dwell on it. He was young, he jokes, and had extreme skateboarding to think about. Although as a teenager he did protest outside an abortion clinic, he went to college to study business and heating and air conditioning, and planned a career in real estate.

The turning point came after graduation, in 1999, when he and three friends took off on a summer motorcycle trip to California. His friends started "getting stoned and drinking a lot while on their bikes," and he ditched them. Finding himself at loose ends, he went to an abortion protest, which at least seemed like familiar territory. The rally, packed with young people, made an impression. "I felt like I had a chance to start a career making money, or dedicate myself to serving God."

It took time for Mason to get to personhood. He met his wife while praying outside an abortion clinic; the two married within five months--"Purity was very important to us," he says--and they moved to Kansas to continue their pro-life work. …