Joni Ernst disingenuous on personhood

It’s time for Iowans to jump in the weeds. And, thanks to all the manure spread as part of and on behalf of the U.S. Senate campaigns of Joni Ernst and Bruce Braley, you should know these weeds are deep.

Reproduction is a very personal thing. To launch discussion on the topic opens the door to faith, sexuality and mortality. There is no way — at least none that I’ve found — to mitigate the strong emotions these subjects evoke.

Difficult conversations, however, are no excuse for complete avoidance or, worse yet, the half-baked excuses allowed to stand during the first U.S. Senate race debate.


US Senate candidate Joni Ernst claps during an event at The Blue Strawberry Coffee Company in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, September 30, 2014.
US Senate candidate Joni Ernst claps during an event at The Blue Strawberry Coffee Company in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, September 30, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Ernst and Braley discussed a Joint Resolution Ernst sponsored in the Iowa Senate. It proposed a new section be added to the Iowa Constitution:

“The inalienable right to life of every person at any stage of development shall be recognized and protected.”

Braley, quoting a fact-check in The Gazette, said the proposed language would have “banned all forms of abortion,” “prevented certain forms of contraception from being available to Iowa women,” “prevent in vitro fertilization,” and “prosecuted doctors for performing what are now legal procedures.”

Ernst contends the resolution was “simply a statement” that she “supports life,” which would not result in anything. She added that she “will always stand with our women on affordable access to contraception” and “believes in a woman’s right to contraception.”


Personhood laws were designed to directly challenge the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which was founded on a right to privacy.

The proposed Iowa language “at any stage of development” would provide legal status to any fertilized human egg, from conception until birth, which includes a zygote before implantation.

Such wording creates an opportunity to challenge Roe v. Wade on new legal standing. That is, the court gave preference to a woman’s right to medical privacy during the first portion of pregnancy. If, however, a fertilized egg or zygote is recognized as a legal person, Roe’s medical privacy foundation could be circumvented by pitting the legal rights of two “people.”

As part of the Roe decision Justice Harry Blackmun wrote, “If this suggestion of personhood is established, the appellant’s case, of course, collapses, for the fetus’ right to life would then be guaranteed specifically by the (14th) Amendment.”

Arguing Iowa’s proposed personhood language would not result in limitations on women’s reproductive health is no different from arguing Roe did not result in legalized abortion. They both are based in the same legal argument — by design.

Although exact language of each personhood proposal is tailored to the state being targeted, all take aim at abortion generally and Roe specifically, and all result in additional limitations to women’s medical privacy and subsequent health care access.

The driving force behind such laws is a national organization, Personhood USA, which began in Colorado. That’s where the first attempt to assign personhood rights was made during the 2008 elections. It overwhelmingly failed. When the organization tried again in 2010, the vote was also against and even more lopsided than the first attempt.

For those who question whether the laws’ ramifications beyond abortion are intended, the Colorado debate provides an answer.

When those advocating passage of personhood in Colorado were asked to alter proposed language to specifically protect women’s access to contraception and fertility treatments while still targeting abortion, supporters refused.

This is also the main reason otherwise conservative voters in Mississippi shocked pollsters in 2011 by refusing to accept a personhood ballot initiative.

Language proposed in the Iowa Legislature by Ernst also failed to specifically protect contraceptive access or fertility treatments, leaving the door open to a ban on all forms of birth control that have the potential of harming a human egg after conception.


Ernst hopes voters will believe her sponsorship of a proposed Constitutional amendment is “simply a statement,” a testament of faith. If that’s true, perhaps next year some pigskin-loving lawmakers will codify their sincerely held belief in the Hawkeyes.

Ernst has very little respect for the Iowa Constitution, did not understand the legislation she sponsored or is attempting political white wash on the abortion bone she tossed to the GOP base.

Personhood amendments are “a dangerous intrusion of criminal law into the provision of medical care,” warns the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. They “will have a profound negative effect on our patient relationships for years to come,” says the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. “It will place in jeopardy a physician who tries to save a mother’s life by performing procedures and employing techniques physicians have used for years,” notes the Mississippi State Medical Association.

That’s a lot of fallout from “simply a statement.”

Once a zygote is a person, no further discussion is needed on the topic of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest — ectopic or molar pregnancies either.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on Oct. 5, 2014. Photo credit: Stephen Mally/The Gazette