Iowa legislators propose personhood amendment

BY NICK HASSETT | APRIL 30, 2013 5:00 AM

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A proposed amendment to the Iowa Constitution drew glowing praise from one state advocacy group and condemnation from another.

Senate Joint Resolution 10, filed April 25 by 21 members of the Iowa Senate, would amend the state Constitution  to make the word “person” apply to all human beings from the beginning of their biological development.

“In and of itself, [the resolution] doesn’t change a whole lot,” said Sen. Dennis Guth, R-Klemme. “But it ensures that if pro-life legislation is passed, it won’t be struck down by the Iowa Supreme Court. It’s a supporting document.”

Guth is one of the lead senators backing the resolution, which has also been introduced in the Iowa House as House Joint Resolution 12.

“I think we can pass it in the House,” Guth said. “The Senate will be real close; we’re hoping to get all the Republican votes and at least one Democrat.”

The sole Democrat to sponsor the bill is Sen. Joe Seng, D-Davenport, who was unavailable to be reached for comment.

Despite Guth’s hopes for the measure, one Senate Democrat said he didn’t expect the personhood resolution to come up this legislative session.

“I’d be surprised if something that dramatic made it through at this time of year,” said Sen. Thomas Courtney, D-Burlington.

According to the House resolution, if adopted in the current Legislature, the measure would then be referred to the next Legislature for adoption. If it passes the House and Senate, the amendment would go directly to Iowans for ratification through a popular vote.

Tim Hagle, a University of Iowa associate professor of political science, said the amendment would hope to essentially overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that allowed women to have abortions.

“The court had to deal with two conflicting rights: women’s privacy is important, but at some point, the child has a right to life as well,” he said. “[The amendment] would define that life as starting at conception.”

Hagle said the notion of a pro-life Democrat, as in the case with Seng, was not entirely unusual.

“There are political concerns, you see them in an area with a lot of Catholics or pro-life issue voters,” he said. “To take a cynical view, they need to be willing to sign on to something, especially if they think it doesn’t have a chance to pass, because it looks good for them.”

Though the measure has only just been introduced, local groups are offering their support or opposition to the resolution.

“This amendment is far out of the mainstream and could have dangerous consequences for every woman of childbearing age in Iowa — now and far into the future,” Jill June, the Planned Parenthood of the Heartland president and CEO, wrote in an email. “This extreme amendment would ban all safe abortion.”

June didn’t think the amendment stood a good chance with Iowan voters.

“So-called ‘personhood’ bills have failed time and time again across the country because the majority of Americans disagree with the premise and the complications that would result,” she said.

However, Maggie DeWitte, the Iowans For Life executive director, was optimistic about the amendment’s chances with voters.

“Recent polls have shown for the first time there are more pro-life supporters that want restrictions on abortion,” she said. “I’d like to think and have hope that the people of Iowa would affirm life.”

DeWitte said a Constitutional amendment would be the organization’s biggest victory.

“[A Constitutional amendment] would come to bear all our hard work; it’s the ultimate goal of any pro-life organization,” she said.

Hagle thought the amendment stood a chance in Iowa but warned it could just as easily backfire on Republicans.

“Like the gay-marriage issue, it’s not clear voters will vote the way Republicans want,” he said. “It’s fairly divisive and controversial, and it will come down to how each side portrays what it’s trying to do.”

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