Legal Challenges to Personhood Initiatives

Document Date: February 9, 2010

In states throughout the country, anti-abortion activists have been attempting to redefine – through constitutional amendments or statutes – the legal definition of “person” to include a fertilized egg and all subsequent stages of development. While the details vary from state to state, the underlying purpose of these measures remains constant: to ban abortion and commonly used forms of birth control.

In November 2008, voters in Colorado resoundingly defeated the first such “personhood initiative” to go before a state electorate. This constitutional amendment would have not only prohibited abortions but could have been used to block stem cell research and curtail access to in vitro fertilization and common forms of contraception, among other reproductive health services. Moreover, it could have affected thousands of laws – from when property rights are granted to inheritance rights to who can file a lawsuit. By a nearly 3 to 1 margin, voters rejected this extreme attempt to eliminate a woman’s right to make personal, private health care decisions.

Our victory in 2008, however, has not deterred efforts to push similar measures in other states as well as in Colorado. Currently, the ACLU is working on legal challenges to proposed initiatives in Alaska, Missouri, and Nevada.

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