Rachel Maddow is a political commentator and host of MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show.”
In 2008 in Colorado, a rebel faction of antiabortion activists decided to pursue a “personhood” initiative. Over the objections of the mainstream antiabortion movement, they proposed amending the state’s constitution to redefine the word “person” to include zygotes. Under the proposal, “from the moment of fertilization,” a woman would be considered two people under Colorado law. When the initiative went before voters, it failed by more than 40 points.
The same activists brought up the measure again in 2010. They changed the “moment of fertilization” language to “the beginning of biological development,” but the intent — and the electoral result — were the same. Even with that year’s conservative electorate, Colorado voters said no to “personhood” by more than 40 points. Again.
The mainstream antiabortion movement opposed the Colorado effort because its members believed a challenge to it might have the unintended effect of reaffirming Roe v. Wade. They also worried that a blunt effort to ban all abortion might cause a backlash that would set back their incremental chipping away at abortion rights.
But voters seem to have rejected “personhood” for a different reason — legally redefining a “person” would not only criminalize all abortion but would probably outlaw hormonal forms of birth control as well. Hormonal contraceptives generally prevent an egg from being fertilized in the first place, but the at-least-theoretical possibility that they might also prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus was enough to raise the specter of birth control pills being viewed as an instrument of homicide.
In Colorado’s U.S. Senate election in 2010, the Republican candidate, Ken Buck, endorsed the “personhood” initiative during the primary. He later backed off that position, but Democrat Michael Bennet hammered Buck for it throughout the campaign. As the rest of the political map turned deep red that year, Buck lost — and lost the vote of Colorado women by a whopping 17 points.
Undeterred, the “personhood” folks tried again, getting their measure on the ballot in Mississippi last year. There were national predictions that any antiabortion ballot measure could pass in Mississippi, but it failed there, too, and by double digits. After a grass-roots campaign that included a “Save the Pill!” rally and billboards saying the measure would make “birth control a lethal weapon,” Mississippians voted it down by 16 points.
After Mississippi rejected “personhood” and its threat to contraception, after Colorado rejected it twice, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul attended (Paul by satellite) a Personhood USA candidates forum in South Carolina. All signed a pledge to pursue “personhood” at the federal level. Mitt Romney did not attend the event, but when asked on Fox News before the Mississippi vote last year whether he would have supported such a measure as Massachusetts governor, he replied, “Absolutely.”
This is critical context for understanding the national media scrum over health insurance and contraception. Taken together — Republicans’ condemnation that birth control be a required benefit of health insurance, their insistence that Planned Parenthood lose all federal funding, their threat to cut federal Title X support for birth control and their support for “personhood” measures that threaten the legality of hormonal birth control — today’s Republican candidates are all Ken Buck now.
There is no constitutional infirmity in requiring religious institutions to follow the same insurance and labor regulations as other employers. Twenty-eight states already require that health insurance plans cover contraception; eight states do not even exempt churches from that requirement, as the Obama administration’s rules would, even before the president announced an expanded religious exemption on Friday. New York, whose Catholic archbishop has railed so vehemently against the administration on this issue, already lives under the rule he decries — it’s state law. The rule is also partially enshrined in federal law thanks to a December 2000 ruling of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. More than a dozen congressional Republicans proposed that this same rule become federal law in 2001, to a furious outcry from precisely no one.
The right has picked a fight on this issue because religiosity is a convenient partisan cudgel to use against Democrats in an election year. Despite that, some Democrats and even some liberals have embraced their logic. The thinking inside the Beltway seems to be that religious voters will turn against Democrats unless the White House drops the basic idea that insurance should cover contraception.
Time will tell on the political impact of this fight, but the relevant political context here is more than just a 2012 measure of Catholic bishops’ influence on moral issues. It’s also this year’s mainstream Republican embrace of an antiabortion movement that no longer just marches on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade to criminalize abortion; it now marches on the anniversary of Griswold v. Connecticut, holding signs that say “The Pill Kills.”