'Human Life' Amendments Latest Challenge to Roe

Tuesday marks the 35th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortion. Today, in many state courts, there is a push for "human life" amendments aimed at granting legal status and rights to embryos.

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The economy is one issue that may affect this year's political campaigns, and here is another: This day is the 35th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. Pro-life activists are now focusing their attention on states for a new tactic to end abortion. Activists in at least half a dozen states are pursuing constitutional amendments called Human Life Amendments that would grant legal status and rights to an embryo.

NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.

KATHY LOHR: Every year since 1973 when Roe versus Wade legalized abortion, there's been a federal effort to pass a human life amendment in Congress. Support for it hasn't materialized. So like other efforts to limit abortion, pro-life advocates have moved the battle to the states.

In Colorado, a group are collecting signatures to put the issue on the November ballot, which does not even mention the word abortion. News of the initiative has been covered across the state and on the Christian radio program Crosstalk.

(Soundbite of radio show, crosstalk)

Unidentified Woman: I'm so happy to be able to talk about something today that looks like a positive step, a real step in the right direction for pre-born babies in the state of Colorado...

LOHR: In Georgia, pro-life groups have their own human life amendment campaign in the state legislature, which declares that a fertilized egg is a person from the moment of fertilization. Despite cold temperatures, hundreds gathered at the state capital last week for a rally.

Republican legislator Melvin Everson is one of about 50 lawmakers who signed on to the amendment here.

(Soundbite of applause)

State Representative MELVIN EVERSON (Republican, Georgia): It's abundantly clear to me today that the people of Georgia will lead the fight to let the rest of the United States of America know that the unborn children are welcome into this society we call the great constitution, the United States of America.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. DAN BECKER (President, Georgia Right to Life): The human life amendment has been the missing link in our pro-life arsenal.

LOHR: Dan Becker is president of Georgia Right to Life. He says state laws restricting abortion including waiting periods, parental consent and more recent efforts to get doctors to perform ultrasounds before an abortion are just small steps that have not allowed them to reach their goal eliminating all abortions.

Mr. BECKER: Georgia has already passed all of the suggested legislation by National Right to Life. We have nothing left to pass that is suggested. We feel this is the next logical step and it goes beyond just incremental gains.

LOHR: The National Right to Life Committee has not endorsed the efforts and did not return phone calls to talk about the issue. But pro-choice groups are gathering forces to fight the measures that they say are much broader than most people realize.

Emilie Ailts is the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado.

Ms. EMILIE AILTS (Executive Director, NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado): It jeopardizes the possibility that women and their families will have access to common forms of birth control, all of which not only prevent the release of the egg and therefore fertilization, but alter the lining of a woman's uterus.

LOHR: Ailts says the amendments also call into question in vitro fertilization, stem cell research, and it could turn out to be a way to prosecute women who have a miscarriage. Since abortion was legalized, there have been efforts to ban it completely, for example in South Dakota where a ballot initiative failed in 2006. Across the states, there have been hundreds of laws passed to restrict abortion. But Nancy Northup with the Center for Reproductive Rights calls the Human Life Amendment a stealth maneuver in the abortion battle.

Ms. NANCY NORTHUP (President, Center for Reproductive Rights): This is another tactic to try to put in place the building blocks, the legal building blocks that would prevent women from being able to access abortion. But to do it in a way that flies under the public's radar screen so that they're not attending to it and at the issue - the fundamental issue about whether women can access abortion - isn't what's being played out in the discussions.

LOHR: Thirty-five years after the Supreme Court legalized abortion, the battle remains over the issue of when life begins and how to maintain the rights of women. It's turning into an all-or-nothing fight and neither side is backing down.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.

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