Going nowhere

Launched on Sept. 11 with as much fanfare as its backers could muster, the campaign to enshrine "personhood" in the state's constitution is looking more and more like a long shot these days, so much so that even anti-abortion forces are abandoning the fight.

Personhood Florida is part of a wider campaign, which claims to be active in 32 states, to amend those states' constitutions with a new definition of when life begins. The amendment proposed for Florida's constitution states: "The words ‘person' and ‘natural person' apply to all human beings, irrespective of age, race, health, function, condition of physical and/or mental dependency and/or disability, or method of reproduction, from the beginning of the biological development of that human being."

The first spark of life is what all the fuss is about. Under this definition, every fertilized human egg would be the legal equivalent of a walking, talking person.

"It's going to define every human being as a person, from the moment of biological beginning until their natural death," says Brenda MacMenamin of Port St. Lucie, main organizer of Personhood Florida.

The campaign has always been about Jesus, as Personhood Florida's website states by claiming that all legal rights flow from him. Not that Jesus ever actually said anything about abortion.

So, what counts as the "biological beginning" for a human?

"When egg meets the sperm, that's the beginning of life," MacMenamin declares.

Does that mean contraception would become illegal if her amendment passed? Methods that keep eggs from being fertilized, such as condoms and spermicide-laden sponges, would presumably still be legal. Those that can prevent the implantation of fertilized eggs, however — such as standard birth-control pills — apparently would not. Nor would "morning-after" pills or RU-486.

MacMenamin is fuzzy on the details of what birth-control methods would and wouldn't still be legal, but she dismisses such questions as a "side issue." It would be up to Florida legislators to hash out what birth control methods would draw cops to your bedroom.

MacMenamin wanted to get the amendment passed in 2010, but the defection of two big-name erstwhile allies has pushed their timetable back by two full years.

"When we first got it started we thought, you know, why not go ahead and put it on the 2010 `ballot`?" MacMenamin says.

But only days after the amendment was announced, all nine members of the Florida Catholic Conference — including Bishop Thomas G. Wenski of the Diocese of Orlando — stated that they not only oppose the Personhood movement, but forbade signature collection in any parish or diocese in the state. Not that the bishops are going all soft on abortion. The statement reiterates their position that you're a Catholic from conception, but says the Personhood campaign is an ill-fated idea.

Michele Taylor, associate director for communications of the Florida Catholic Conference, the policy arm of the bishops' body, said the church doesn't really disagree with the Personhood campaign as an idea, but the bishops — after consulting with lawyers — decided it was "not prudent" to back a 2010 campaign for a constitutional amendment.

"We appreciate the intentions of those proposing the amendment," she said. But the bishops have chosen instead to work for "incremental" changes through the Legislature, Taylor says.

Not that MacMenamin is taking their criticisms to heart. "I think the Catholic bishops are not against us," she says. "They are busy with legislative efforts, and they like to focus more on pregnancy care centers, but they have voiced that if it came to the point of being on the ballot they would be for it."

The ban on petitioning at Catholic churches, normally fertile recruiting ground for anti-abortionists, was a serious blow to an effort that already faced long odds. Personhood Florida set the lofty goal of getting 676,811 signatures by Feb. 1. That's what would be required to get on the 2010 ballot.

MacMenamin says so far they're "into the thousands" of signatures — not very specific, and apparently a long way from the magic number.

But hope springs eternal: MacMenamin says she's heartened by how many people are printing out petitions to go gather signatures and calling from around the state with support. Based on that optimism, she predicts an explosion of growth … eventually.

Once on the ballot, the amendment would need approval by 60 percent of voters. The ultra-right Eagle Forum noted that a similar 2008 push in Colorado lost by a 3-to-1 margin.

Eagle Forum founder Phyllis Schlafly also bailed on the Personhood campaign, denouncing it Nov. 30 as a "hurtful gimmick" opposed by most anti-abortion groups. "This poorly designed initiative would not prevent a single abortion even it if became law, and its vague language would enable more mischief by judges," Schlafly wrote.

Eagle Forum lawyer John Schlafly says they've heard nothing from Personhood groups.

Meanwhile, Personhood Florida is reduced to crowing about its endorsement from the tiny Evangelical Bible College and Seminary in Greenacres and from various Tea Party political hopefuls.

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