Planned personhood

The pro-life movement’s newest attack on reproductive rights raises its profile in Florida

It’s business as usual at Planned Parenthood of Greater Orlando. On the Wednesday before Christmas, the women’s health clinic, just south of the Citrus Bowl on Tampa Avenue, is deceptively quiet for a battleground. Outside, there’s little activity save for the muted shuffle of about 10 pro-life activists making their way up and down the sidewalk. They clutch graphic anti-abortion pamphlets reading “We’re here for you … You are not alone,” and placards declaring that abortion “hurts the father, too.” The silent ritual only breaks when a potential Planned Parenthood client steps up to the entrance; crossing the sidewalk and approaching the clinic or its patrons is 
strictly forbidden.

“Change your mind!” heckles one protester. “We’ll help you!”

Once inside, though, the mood is decidedly more serene, at least on the surface. The waiting room quickly fills with fidgeting couples, girls in trouble and their friends. They are silent. But there are signs that the clinic is on the defense: The glass at the front window is bullet-resistant and the clinic’s four physicians each pack a gun and protective vests. The staff has endured anthrax scares and stalking incidents. Behind the bulletproof reception window, two women operate the call center with seasoned aplomb: no thongs on the day of procedure, it’s OK to take your medication with food, those asking too many general questions (most serious calls involve a sense of urgency) are typically pro-lifers trying to clog the system. They receive 12,000 calls a month.

“A lot of people will hang up because they won’t even say the word ‘abortion,’” one says, adding “Nothing surprises me anymore.”

Increasingly conservative legislatures across the country have been hammering away at reproductive rights since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision (which celebrates its 38th anniversary this month), but those strikes have been on Planned Parenthood’s radar for decades. Of greater concern to the pro-choice movement, even if only in theory for now, is the recent upsurge in new citizen-led movements across the country to circumnavigate the standard political rhetoric with Tea-Party-esque (and shamelessly religious) attempts to write “personhood” into state constitutions via petition initiatives.

If these activists get their way, a woman’s fetus could be granted the same rights – if not more rights – than are given American women, Planned Parenthood argues. Killing a fetus intentionally would be tantamount to murder, while other statutes that include the term “person” would have to be reconsidered. Meanwhile, issues such as in vitro fertilization, stem-cell research and access to reproductive health services for women could be thrown out the window. This year, personhood will appear on the Mississippi ballot. Next year, supporters of the initiative hope, Florida will follow suit, though the movement has been languishing here since 2009.

Even if the personhood movement has yet to register any significant successes, its supporters – including those in Florida – are filtering their grassroots message through churches and the Internet, hoping to override the government’s slower methods and ultimately to undermine the Roe ruling by the people’s will. Pro-life advocates have waited in the wings long enough; it’s time to take matters in their own hands. If nothing else, it represents a shift in the pro-life argument away from regulatory strategy and into mob-rule mentality.

With so much already at stake politically, Planned Parenthood is not taking the offense lightly. The wounds of the 2009 murder of abortion doctor George Tiller in Kansas at the hands of a pro-life extremist are still fresh in the minds of women’s health advocates, and choice proponents fear this trend to adopt personhood as a legitimate concept – underscored by increasingly virulent public rhetoric – is too big a threat to ignore.

Self-described missionary Keith Mason launched the national group Personhood USA in 2008 following a failed attempt in Colorado to pass a personhood amendment to the state constitution. The amendment would define life in all state statutes as the “beginning of biological development.” He says it’s a natural outgrowth of the sanctity-of-life movement that followed the Roe ruling – and that it’s right in line with attempts to pass a federal bill that President Ronald Reagan campaigned for in the 1980s that would have banned abortion. In a 1983 National Review op-ed, Reagan wrote, “I have closely followed and assisted efforts in Congress to reverse the tide of abortion – efforts of congressmen, senators and citizens responding to an urgent moral crisis. Regrettably, I have also seen the massive efforts of those who, under the banner of ‘freedom of choice,’ have so far blocked every effort to reverse nationwide abortion-on-demand.”

Mason, whose roots in the pro-life movement stretch back to 1996 (and who, according to the Personhood USA website, is “motivated by the second commandment to ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ ”), is just picking 
up that torch.

“The fundamentals of what we’re trying to do is restore dignity to the preborn child,” he says. “So it’s the same intent as it was before, but now we’re focusing in on that term ‘personhood,’ which is what the [Roe] justices said was sort of the crux of it; they admitted it: that the preborn child was known as a human but not a person.”

More specifically, in the lengthy Roe opinion attached to the decision, Justice Harry Blackmun says the court struggled with the balance between a woman’s right to privacy and the prenatal rights of the unborn, concluding: “We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man’s knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.”

The personhood amendment supported by Mason and others defines a person as such: “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.”

To hear Mason tell it, the 2008 Colorado initiative, and a subsequent 2010 initiative in Colorado called Amendment 62, have been stories of small successes, despite the fact that neither effort was successful. The first constitutional amendment lost by 73 percent, the second lost by a slightly smaller margin, with 70 percent opposing it. According to the Denver Post, last year’s initiative saw $578,000 in donor opposition via a campaign spearheaded by Planned Parenthood (Planned Parenthood reportedly spent $3 million in total battling the measure), nearly 10 times what Personhood Colorado was able to assemble. To Mason, it’s a sign of incremental change.

“When the grassroots are not relying on a president or the legislature to do the job, they get off their tails and do it for themselves,” he says. “[President] Obama’s been almost a great asset to us in that he’s helped us motivate the base.”

That base is largely Christian, and increasingly Internet savvy. Personhood USA boasts 50,000 Twitter followers, Mason says, and Personhood Florida, with 75,000 followers, is “the number one pro-life organization on Twitter right now. We’re in a little bit 
of a race.”

Even conservatives aren’t safe. Mason thinks those typically relied on to champion the pro-life movement haven’t done enough to move aggressive anti-abortion measures through Congress. Regulatory reform is too slow and complicated. There are lives at stake. It’s not enough to be conservative if you aren’t going to act on your stated social agenda.

“If they say that they’re pro-life, well what does that mean? That’s when politicians, their rubber has to meet the road,” he says.

As of this month, Personhood USA – the umbrella group under which each of the state groups operates – has a presence in all 50 states, Mason says. There’s a “next few years” strategy underway; Mississippi is the next battlefield on the horizon, with South Dakota and Florida also coming into view. Personhood USA is not just a small grassroots organization, either: It’s recognized by the IRS as a 501(c)4 (a social-welfare nonprofit) with a 2011 annual budget projected to be $1 million.

“We’re growing,” Mason says. “But, again, we’re two years old, so it’s hard to have a 
budget of a billion a year like Planned Parenthood does.”

Foes of the personhood movement – including Planned Parenthood – argue that the various state amendments being put forth by the group are chilling: They will not only outlaw abortion procedures, but also crucially limit access to birth control, treatment for miscarriages and infertility procedures like 
in vitro fertilization.

“It’s utterly false and a lie,” Mason says. “This will not ban contraception at any level. It will ban abortifacient drugs, likely, and the only reason it would ban those is because abortifacient drugs kill a unique living being.”

But what about contraception pills? Don’t they interfere with the natural process?

“Well, there’s a debate on that I think,” says Mason, somewhat dubiously. “I think we could get to the bottom of it very quickly.”

Pastor Bryan Longworth of Port St. Lucie is leading the charge for Personhood Florida; the group formed in September 2009 and failed to obtain enough signatures to get its amendment to appear on the 2010 ballot. As of press time, Personhood Florida has yet to present any petitions to the Florida Division of Elections for the 2012 ballot. Naturally, Longworth views the apparent setback as a “challenge.”

“We’re just starting on it,” he says. “We view every step of the way as a part of the challenge, as a part of educating the population. And we believe that this is the next logical step in the civil rights movement: ending abortion.”

That’s not the only rhetorical and historical touchstone utilized in the personhood movement. The Personhood Florida website boasts a YouTube video comparing abortion to the ills of slavery. Over the tune of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a voice (presumably Longworth’s) says, “It took nearly 100 more years and a civil war to rid our nation of the scourge of slavery. Today, over 1.2 million preborn children are killed in America by abortion.” Supporters of the Colorado initiative ironically co-opted the message of the South Dakota women’s suffrage movement after losing their latest battle. They issued a statement in November reading, “From 1890 to 1918, women in South Dakota attempted many times to gain the right to vote. Their constitutional amendments failed to pass six times before they succeeded.”

“One of the things is that they didn’t give up!” Longworth says, likewise invoking South Dakota history. “They continued. They weren’t successful at first. They continued and they kept fighting and kept fighting until they won, and that’s what we’re doing.”

In the short term, Personhood Florida hopes to come up with 10 percent of the required 676,811 signatures to land its amendment initiative on the state’s 2012 ballot for voter consideration; those petitions will then be reviewed by the Florida Supreme Court. If approved, Longworth says, the movement will take on a new life.

“There are a lot of conservatives hanging in the wings,” he says. “And when they see us actually doing something, they’re going to want to be involved in it as well. They’re good people; they fought for the [anti-gay] marriage amendment here in Florida.”

Ultimately, the lofty goal is to get 38 states on board and prompt a federal personhood amendment into the U.S. Constitution, and in the process, present a valid legal challenge to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Last year, the Orlando-based Liberty Counsel, the outspoken legal arm of the local conservative right, successfully defeated an ACLU and Planned Parenthood challenge to Personhood Mississippi’s ballot initiative on state constitutional grounds. (It will be on the ballot this year.) Longworth says that the Liberty Counsel is the acting attorney for Personhood Florida, as well, and “chomping at the bit” to be the law firm that challenges Roe.

But it won’t be easy. Longworth, a self-described Tea Party leader, is aware of the bureaucracies standing in the way. And though he’s willing to support any legislation that will decrease the practice of abortion in the state of Florida, he isn’t willing to settle. Personhood Florida is encouraging churches to engage their flocks as a means of taking over the political process. A 17-point checklist for pastors is provided on the group’s overtly religious website. The first suggestion?

“Pray and fast.”

Not everybody in the pro-life movement is praying for personhood, though. Not even those who typically turn to prayer for answers. In 2009, the bishops representing the Florida Catholic Conference renounced the amendment, following the lead of similar nationwide right-to-life organizations – and noted conservative Phyllis Schlafly. The prevailing argument is that the amendments are “too vague” or not timely. Florida state Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood – co-sponsor of the pro-life mandatory ultrasound bill last year, HB 1143 – 
sits somewhere precariously in the middle.

“I think that if [personhood] were in our constitution, that would probably tee up a question between the state and the federal government,” he says. “Whether that is the best way to ultimately overturn Roe v. Wade, there are a lot of people that don’t believe that’s the best strategy. I’m not knowledgeable enough to know that that’s the truth, but it does cause me pause that there are some groups that are all-in pro-life that have some concerns with it.”

Plakon points to more practical attempts at legislation – “slowly working around the margins,” he calls it – as more likely methods of addressing the abortion question. The Nebraska fetal-pain law passed last year, wherein abortions were prohibited after 20 weeks due to the potential for causing the fetus tangible pain, is something he’s considering. (The similar Pain-Capable Unborn Child Act was filed in Florida by state Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, on Jan. 21.) A Georgia Senate bill that tried – and ultimately failed in the state House – to lump abortion procedures into existing discrimination laws has piqued his curiosity. If a white woman chose to abort her pregnancy because she knew the father was black, she would be turned away under the Georgia law. Plakon also plans to reintroduce the ultrasound bill, which would have required women to obtain an ultrasound before having an abortion; the bill was vetoed by Gov. Charlie Crist in 2010.

Though he says that the conservative state legislature will be focusing predominately on jobs and the economy, pro-life legislation will have its place on the docket. The personhood amendment doesn’t factor into that, he says, because it hasn’t yet gained the necessary traction.

“It really, quite honestly, becomes a distraction from jobs and the economy – and from the things that are doable right now and will make a meaningful difference,” Plakon says. “There are tangible results that can happen in Florida this year.”

The personhood issue doesn’t appear to have made many inroads into the muted progressive side of the Florida Legislature, at least not yet. State Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando, has only recently picked up on the amendment initiative via Planned Parenthood; he thinks, at best, it’s unnecessary, especially when there’s a conservative majority that could carry that kind of language into law without the grassroots blisters.

“If I were in an organization, and I had a far-right legislature, why would I go out and find a million signatures?” he says. “It only takes 72 votes in the House, 24 votes in the Senate. They’ve easily got it.”

That doesn’t mean that progressives shouldn’t be alarmed, though. Unlike citizen-led initiatives that need to have their signatures approved by January 2012, the legislature could pick up on personhood anytime over the next two legislative sessions.

“It’s something you have to keep an eye out for,” Randolph says.

Some within the pro-choice movement, including Planned Parenthood of Greater Orlando president and chief executive officer Sue Idtensohn, are a little more concerned. Nationally, Planned Parenthood is struggling to put out the fires via lawsuits and campaigns in several states – Mississippi, Nevada, Colorado, among others – and in the process, it’s hemorrhaging millions of dollars.

“We know the personhood thing is real,” she says. “And Florida is next.”

The problem is creating something of an identity crisis for Planned Parenthood. Last year, PPGO received a $478,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for its proactive work on teen pregnancy prevention. Yet the organization’s name has become synonymous almost exclusively with abortion.

“I think what we’ve really failed to do is really hammer on the fact that Planned Parenthood is really what its name says,” Idtensohn says. “You’re really planning a family or planning on whether you want to have a family, and prior to that, you’re preventing an unintended pregnancy.”

In other words, the key is disseminating birth control. But that’s not enough for the occasionally rowdy protesters holding vigil outside the Tampa Avenue clinic. (“We’ve had suitcases with pipes and wires,” Idtensohn says.) According to Orlando police records, the violence is increasing. There were 10 calls for service (vandalism, threats or assaults, trespassing) in 2009, and 19 in 2010.

Orlando’s Planned Parenthood office performs approximately 2,000 abortions per year, some surgical, some via medications like RU-486 (available for up to the first seven weeks). The cost is about $500 per procedure. Though 97 percent of the services offered by the agency are not related to abortion, the revenue stream supporting Planned Parenthood of Greater Orlando increasingly is. According to 2009 tax documents, PPGO took in $952,733 for surgical services, a large portion of its $2.5 million in program service revenue. As a result, Idtensohn says there’s been a necessary sea change in the way that Planned Parenthood presents itself. After years of trying to distance the organization from the “A” word (the Orlando office only started offering abortion procedures four years ago), it’s now an 
imperative that the group owns it.

“I think we’re at a real watershed here,” she says. “I think that these kinds of issues are going to pop up. The opposition is really good at messaging, just like Republicans. And we react; we are not proactive.”

She points sheepishly at a recent rebranding exercise in which the new tagline for Planned Parenthood is “We’re here,” only half-jokingly adding that it should read, 
“We’re fucked.”

“The problem that we have is we say, ‘Let’s protect women and families.’ Eh, it’s kind of nebulous,” she says. “You’re about to lose your right and the ability to make this choice. And then people go, ‘Do we really need to be that assertive?’ Yes, we need to be that assertive. We need to take a page out of the book of our opposition. We have to come up with something.”

Despite their meager numbers thus far, Idtensohn doesn’t dismiss the potential for damage from the rising clamor of Personhood Florida. The state, she fears, is almost conservative enough to buy it, and certainly big enough for pro-choice allies to lose it. She suspects the $3 million spent to fight the initiative in Colorado could easily turn into $20 million in Florida – a suspicion clearly relished by her adversaries like Mason and Longworth. Progressives have grown complacent; young people born after the Roe decision take their rights for granted. It’s a perfect storm.

“The biggest challenge we have is how do we galvanize the people that are privately appalled by this – and I think they are – but how do we get them to voice that?” she says. “How do we get them to come to the polls? How do we get them to have a decline-to-sign petition? You know, Montana, Colorado – places that are small – are able to do those kind of things. Florida’s huge.”

There are many misconceptions about what Planned Parenthood does, thanks in large part to the pro-life movement’s messages, says Idtensohn. There is no coercion of clients into procedures, no allowance for coercion by boyfriends or parents. The office performs ultrasounds on every patient to determine gestation age and has mandatory counseling with patients. There is no moralizing; the patient’s decision is sacrosanct. Also, despite recent campaigns in Atlanta and Philadelphia decrying the “black genocide” of African-American abortions, only about 20 percent of the procedures at the Orlando location are performed on black women. Idtensohn says she expects the “black genocide” billboards to start popping up in Orlando soon, anyway, along with more crisis pregnancy centers trying to lure women away with faulty science and religious concern. It’s a constant battle.

“They say we’re murdering babies. I don’t know how to debate that,” she says. “But, again, it is a decision – to me it’s one of the more important decisions you’ll ever make in your life – and I think they think that we just drag everybody in off the street and give them an abortion.

“I think that’s a slap in the face to women,” she adds.

Stephanie Kunkel, executive director of the Florida Association of Planned Parenthood Affiliates, monitors the attacks from all fronts as the political arm for the organization in Tallahassee. She’s grown accustomed to the conservative legislature’s standard tactic of planting anti-choice caveats in any corner of legislation it can. Already this year a bill has been filed by state Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, to exclude abortion coverage from the forthcoming health insurance exchanges attached to the federal Affordable Care Act. Another bill, filed by state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, in January would decrease regulation of the funds collected from the state’s “Choose Life” automotive license plates. State Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights, is expected to reintroduce his Florida for Life Act that would make all abortions illegal except in cases where the life of the woman is at stake. But sometimes the legislature is more strategic.

“For example, fetal homicide laws are nothing new,” Kunkel says. “Oftentimes the anti-choice community will use backdoor methods as a way to restrict access to or to chip away at Roe v. Wade. One of those being the fetal homicide laws where a woman could be driving down the road, she may not even know she’s pregnant, she gets into a car accident and now suddenly the person who hits her is being charged for the death of an ‘unborn child.’”

Those laws, to some degree, already exist in Florida, typically utilizing the term “unborn quick child” – meaning a viable fetus that could live outside the womb – as an actual victim in cases of vehicular homicide, manslaughter and DUI manslaughter.

Kunkel, along with her associates, has been eyeing the slow growth of the personhood movement. Documents obtained by the Weekly from a Planned Parenthood affiliates meeting last month outline the group’s strategy to counter Florida’s personhood movement with a “three-leg” approach: educating progressives, a decline-to-sign campaign and building coalition power. Although Kunkel refers to Personhood Florida as a “fringe” element (“It’s nothing new,” she says), that doesn’t mean Planned Parenthood is outright dismissing it. Rather, Kunkel dismisses the claim that Planned Parenthood is misrepresenting the truth about personhood.

“You’re getting into technicalities here, but the word ‘person’ is used thousands upon thousands upon thousands of times in Florida law,” she says. “You are now effectively changing the law to say that the law applies to every person from the point of biological development. Are you then saying that a woman who miscarries would be charged with abortion, and therefore it’s the killing of a person? Would you say that a fertilized egg used in in vitro fertilization that then gets discarded or disposed of by the person that chose to give the egg or the sperm is then killing the person? Are you saying that a drug like emergency contraception that prevents the implantation of the egg is killing a person?

“I mean, we’re not mischaracterizing what this language would do,” Kunkel says. “This language and the intent of this language is to create drastic change so that a one-day-old fertilized egg is given the exact same rights under the law as an adult human being.”

Personhood Florida’s Longworth is seemingly unfazed by those kind of specifics. Whether he eventually gets his way and his amendment passes is what matters; the actual implementation of its terms into law will be a job for the politicians, the very ones of which he’s suspicious. This is a crusade for him, one to save the future by means of maintaining God’s goodwill. “Prosperity,” he says, will dissipate if we don’t stop “killing children.” This is a holy wake-up call, one with a television twist.

“The vast majority of Americans are pro-life [actually, a 2010 CBS News poll showed that 75 percent of Americans support legal abortion on some level], and they believe in traditional marriage and they believe in less taxes and less government. And one of the things that you are seeing is those people waking up and realizing that they’re not alone,” he says. “Like Glenn Beck says, ‘You’re not alone.’ And just that phrase and seeing so many people come out and stand for an issue has really emboldened people.”

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