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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Why “Personhood” Matters

There’s been quite a bit of discussion during this midterm cycle about the “Personhood” movement and its efforts (via ballot initiatives and proposed federal and state constitutional amendments and statutes) to give zygotes the full rights of citizenship, in order to infallibly protect them from destruction via abortions, IV fertilization, or certain kinds of birth control.
But “Personhood” has become a real problem from pols who embraced that radical Cause and are now getting heat for it, including most notably 2014 Senate candidates Cory Gardner, Joni Ernst and Thom Tillis. So they’re distancing themselves from it, and even trying to depict themselves as “moderates” on reproductive rights issues because they don’t really share the Personhood movement’s most radical tenets. But it won’t go away that easily, as I discussed at Washington Monthly today:

In a fascinating look at the Colorado-based Personhood USA organization, Irin Carmon explains why this fring-y cause is getting so much attention this year, and why it’s deplored by both GOPers and “mainstream” antichoice groups. The bottom line is that its efforts are blowing the cover of a GOP/RTL strategy to incrementally ban abortions (and eventually “abortifacient” birth control methods) by focusing on controversial late-term abortions and such deceptive practices as the increasingly popular “medical conditions” restrictions that are shutting down clinics in a host of states. The Personhood folk hate the indirect strategy, and want to hold everyone’s feet to the fire to make sure they will embrace the least as well as the most popular antichoice measures.

What Personhood USA wants is culture change. Specifically, they want a culture where fertilized eggs are paramount, without exceptions, and anyone who stands in their way – including the woman carrying an embryo or fetus – is subject to the criminal code.
They aren’t there yet, but they’re getting closer. “Being around for six years,” [Personhood USA communications director Jennifer] Mason said, “we’ve changed the way the country talks about abortion.”
She’s right. Candidates who call themselves pro-life are being called out by parts of their base for not going far enough – far enough being Personhood. Evangelical Protestants being drawn into the previously Catholic terrain of the contraception wars are working from the Personhood playbook, and growing its coalition. The Supreme Court decision in Hobby Lobby, which refused to question Personhood’s unscientific claims in allowing religious owners of companies to opt out of covering contraception for their employees, was the biggest public relations coup yet for Personhood’s worldview.
Even Republicans who have at one point embraced Personhood and are now denying or deflecting their stances – as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Iowa Republican Senatorial candidate Joni Ernst have -are still operating on Personhood’s terrain.

Here’s the key thing to understand:

Nor is Mason bothered by the sometimes fierce battles fought among anti-abortion factions on how Personhood is spoiling everything. “It’s important to note that they do agree on the goals,” she said of her fellow abortion opponents. “In fact, even before we got involved, Personhood has long been considered the end game for the pro-life movement.” She’s right about that too.

As is the case with a lot of arguments within the GOP and the conservative movement these days, regular old antichoice pols and the Personhood folk agree on principles and goals but differ on strategy and tactics. If they could run the country, they’d run it the same way, with no abortions legal anywhere and with IUDs and Plan B contraception either banned or under a legal cloud.

So the “Personhood” debate is a useful optic for understanding the relationship of the GOP with extremist groups, and why Republican claims of “moderation” are so often exaggerated at best and plainly deceptive at worst.

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