Profiles on the Right: Personhood USA

About Alex DiBranco

Personhood USA

As so-called “personhood” anti-abortion bills gain traction, the personhood wing of the anti-choice movement faces heavy criticism for causing internal division and pursuing a “fundamentally flawed” legal strategy. Its uncompromising agenda to ban abortion without exception, even in the case of rape and incest, has alienated many “pro-life” activists. More importantly, perhaps, attacks on rape exemptions have been particularly unpopular with the general public and also pose a suspect judicial argument. As such, mainstream “pro-life” advocates who do think personhood “sounds good” still question the tactic’s efficacy.

Such concerns, however, have not stopped organizations like Personhood USA from advancing an aggressively anti-choice agenda.  Founded in 2008, Personhood USA has taken the lead in arguing for legally recognizing “fetal personhood,” which would prohibit abortion at any time by stating that an embryo is a “person” from the moment of conception. The founder of the group, Keith Mason, previously served as a “missionary” for Operation Rescue, a militant and inflammatory anti-choice organization. During his time at Operation Rescue, “Mason drove a ‘truth truck’—a van plastered with pictures of dead fetuses, spreading the ‘abortion is murder’ message as he traveled across the country.”

On its website, Personhood USA advertises its visits to “over 500 college campuses and over 1000 high schools around the country.” Mason and his wife, both in their early 30s, hope their youth outreach will galvanize a new generation of anti-choice activists. Along with such individuals as Lila Rose of LiveAction, and Ryan Bomberger of the Radiance Foundation, Mason represents a new generation of anti-choice leaders (a trend that Malika Redmond has previously written about for Political Research Associates).

Another member of Personhood USA’s leadership team, Rebecca Kiessling, runs the organization’s “Savethe1” project, dedicated to attacking rape exemptions around abortion. Kiessling, who herself identifies as the child of a rape survivor, seeks to personalize the issue by accusing abortion rights advocates of pushing the “death penalty” for babies born in her circumstances. Savethe1 draws heavily upon emotionally fraught stories, told by children born following an assault, as well as stories by rape survivors who discuss regretting an abortion or promote their decision to give birth. The Gift of Life, a documentary featuring Kiessling’s story among others, is credited with winning over Texas Gov. Rick Perry. (Intriguingly, The Gift of Life was produced by Citizens United, a right-wing organization infamous for its role in the Supreme Court decision gutting campaign finance legislation restricting corporate contributions.)

“Personhood” as a tactic may cause controversy within the “pro-life” movement, but personhood legislation has received the backing of major, multi-issue Christian Right organizations such as the American Family Association, Focus on the Family, and Liberty Council. Mason’s organization lists prominent personhood supporters such as former Republican presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee; National Right to Life and Americans United for Life founder John Archibold, Esq.; Sen. Rand Paul; and Alveda King, niece of Martin Luther King Jr. Despite its unpopularity with the general public, the concept of fetal personhood plays an important role in the Christian Right’s secularized “abortion as murder” frame.

Simply arguing that abortion is “immoral,” in the same way birth control or premarital sex is “immoral,” has limited efficacy in a secular society with a diversity of belief systems. Mason and Kiessling come to the logical conclusion that if opposition to abortion is about protecting a life, rather than punishing women’s sexual behavior, then rape survivors should not be exempted. The support for such exceptions poses a weak spot in the theoretical underpinnings of “abortion as murder.” So while an organization like Personhood USA takes the heat for its public and uncompromising public positions, other larger anti-abortion rights organizations less vocally put their weight behind a similar agenda.

For instance, even while major anti-abortion organization Americans United for Life (AUL) publicly criticized the personhood strategy, it was also covertly behind efforts to “expand justifiable homicide statutes to cover killings committed in the defense of an unborn child” (i.e. legalizing the murder of an abortion doctor). Though AUL denied that sanctioning the murder of abortion doctors was the purpose or intent of the legislation, its rebuttal came across as disingenuous. AUL may worry about being publicly associated with support for personhood legislation, but it seems that the organization may be more sympathetic when away from the public eye.

In 2013, the passage of a fetal personhood constitutional amendment in the North Dakota legislature, the first of its kind, was a significant victory for the personhood Next Profile arrowmovement. In November of 2014, the state’s voters will decide whether to accept the amendment, which defines personhood as beginning at “the moment of fertilization. Yet even if the amendment is rejected at the ballot, securing legislative approval already marks a major mainstream success for a concept that, until recently, had hovered on the movement’s outskirts.

Alex DiBranco is a Sociology PhD Candidate at Yale University, writing her dissertation on the U.S. New Right movement infrastructure from 1971-1997. She is a member of The Public Eye editorial board and formerly PRA's Communications Director, and is currently visiting at the UC Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies.