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Joni Ernst tries to cover her tracks on ‘Personhood’

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At last weekend’s debate, Iowa GOP Senate candidate Joni Ernst tried to explain her previous support for a “Personhood” amendment by claiming it was merely a “statement” of “support” for “life.” She voiced that notion twice, as her primary rebuttal to the charge — made in a barrage of ads and attacks from Bruce Braley and Democrats — that her support for Personhood shows she supports outlawing abortion and various forms of contraception.

“That amendment is simply a statement that I support life,” Ernst said at the debate, adding that it “was a statement on life.” She also said the amendment would never have any impact until subsequent anti-abortion legislation were passed, meaning it was merely designed to ensure that such legislation passed later would not be overturned by the courts.

Ernst’s overall meaning was clear: Her support for the amendment in no way signaled any real-world policy intent on her part.

But this appears at odds with the description of the amendment offered by one of its chief sponsors — and at odds with a previous published statement from Ernst herself.

Iowa State Senator Dennis Guth was one of the lawmakers who spearheaded the Iowa Personhood amendment, which would amend the state Constitution to include the following language: “The inalienable right to life of every person at any stage of development shall be recognized and protected.” This is in keeping with the general goal of Personhood measures, to ensure that full human rights begin at the moment of fertilization.

In an interview with me, Guth suggested the purpose of the amendment was indeed to have a real world impact. Its purpose, he said, was “to make sure that we include the pre-born, those who have been conceived but are not yet born, in the category of all human beings that would receive all human rights.”

“My intent is to preserve the full rights of all persons for everyone in this country from the moment of conception to the time of natural death,” Guth said.

That is more than a mere “statement” in support of life. And in an interview published back in May on a conservative-leaning Iowa website called Caffeinated Thoughts, Ernst suggested the same:

QUESTION: At what point do you believe a human life is guaranteed the legal protections of being an American citizen and what would you do to ensure those protections are provided?
ERNST: “Life begins at conception and in the [Iowa] Senate I joined either 20 or 21 of us who pushed an amendment to Article 1 of the state constitution. That joint resolution would’ve defined and defended life from conception and I’m trying to remember how we phrased it, but basically that there was an inalienable right to life of every person at any stage of development. We should protect that.”

That, again, suggests that the amendment was intended as more than a “statement” in support of life.

Asked to verify the authenticity of the interview and to comment further, an Ernst spokesperson didn’t return an email. But Congressman Steve King has vouched for Caffeinated Thoughts, and the interview was conducted by a reporter, Jacob Hall, who works for the Sioux Center News.

Shane VanderHart, the editor of Caffeinated Thoughts, tells me he thinks Ernst’s answer at the debate is contradicted by her comments to his website.

“At the debate she did not describe the bill accurately,” VanderHart said. “She waffled and backtracked and didn’t give a straight answer. As a pro-life conservative, this is frustrating.”

Ernst is not the only GOP Senate candidate who has tried to soften his or her previous stance on “Personhood.” Cory Gardner, who is running in Colorado, abandoned his previous support for a state Personhood amendment, and has since voiced support for over the counter contraception. But he continues to back a federal Personhood amendment that concluded could lead to restrictions on some forms of contraception. In North Carolina, Thom Tillis’ campaign said back in May that he would support a Personhood measure if it came to the Senate floor, but he has since come out for over-the-counter contraception, too.

This isn’t necessarily a contradiction — some forms of contraception appear compatible with Personhood. But it invites the follow-up question: Do you support outlawing forms of contraception — such as the pill and intrauterine devices — that may not be compatible with Personhood?

In Iowa — as in Colorado — the debate has centered on whether such an amendment would have any real world impact. Ernst now suggests the measure she supported is nothing more than a “statement.” As it happens, because these amendments have not passed, it remains unclear what sort of impact they would have. But this should not obscure the fact that Personhood measures are clearly intended to have a real-world impact: To grant full human rights from the moment of fertilization, with all of the concrete policy implications that carries.