When does “personhood” begin? Coloradans have twice rejected a “personhood” amendment to their state constitution that would define individual life as starting at conception — a definition that would align with science, at the very least. For one mother in Denver, the failure of Coloradans to accept that definition has left a bitter hole in her life while she grieves a son the law refuses to recognize:
Heather Surovik was eight months pregnant when a drunk driver smacked into her car on a summer afternoon on the outskirts of Denver. A 27-year-old preschool teacher at the time, she was expecting to give birth within days, in July 2012, to a boy she called Brady. “I survived,” she said. “Brady did not.”
To Surovik, that was a homicide. But not according to Colorado law. “I was told that because my son did not take a breath, he was not considered a person,” she said. “He was considered part of my injuries—a loss of a pregnancy.” In her case, a repeat drunk driver named Gary Sheats pleaded guilty to driving under the influence and vehicular assault.
“Those charges didn’t matter to me because they didn’t involve my son,” Surovik said. “I wanted to figure out a way to get justice.”
The personhood movement fights to recognize life at its start in order to hold those accountable for injuring or killing it liable through the legal system, as well as an effort to end abortion. Opponents of the law argue that it’s too broad, and would have enormous consequences:
Opponents argue the opposite—that the law would work against pregnant women. “This measure would make every pregnant woman the potential perpetrator of a violent crime—whether she has an abortion, experiences a pregnancy loss, or goes to term having done anything including smoking a cigarette that someone views as creating a risk to the fertilized egg, embryo or fetus,” said Lynn Paltrow, executive director of the nonprofit National Advocates for Pregnant Women.
Thirty-eight states have laws regarding fetuses killed by violent acts against pregnant women, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some of the laws focus on harm done to a pregnant woman and the loss of her pregnancy, while most of the laws, known as fetal-homicide, or feticide, laws, define the fetus as a person and a potential crime victim in its own right. The Brady Amendment goes beyond typical feticide laws, according to Paltrow: Feticide laws, she said, amend only a limited number of criminal laws such as murder and assault laws, not the entire criminal code.
Still, the experience of Surovik shows that there is no justice for the unborn in Colorado, even those who are loved and wanted, according to Personhood USA, which dismisses these concerns as “scare tactics”:
“Opponents have long used scare tactics like these,” said Jennifer Mason, communications director of Personhood USA. “Recognizing that there are two victims in cases like Heather’s cannot ban in-vitro fertilization, nor can it ban contraception. Recognizing that Brady is a person is a threat the abortion industry, who profits from the idea that babies like Brady are not people. Brady was a person when he was newly conceived, when he was at eight weeks gestation, 18 weeks gestation and eight months gestation. Brady was fully human, fully alive, and Colorado law should have ensured justice for Heather and Brady.”
This is the question that the US refuses to confront rationally. We have discovered, in Roe, an emanation from a previously-unknown penumbra in the Constitution that allows people to treat human life as their disposable property. At the same time, we seem to have trouble applying the 14th Amendment’s equal-treatment principle to human life, even just in the unborn context. That might be a better question for states to decide, but thanks again to Roe, they largely cannot. If Colorado passed the “personhood” amendment to address these injustices, the Supreme Court would almost certainly strike it down anyway … again, thanks to Roe.
Be sure to read it all, and kudos to NBC for featuring this story.