Sexuality Policy Watch

The Personhood Movement: Where it came from and where it stands today

This article was originally published in ProPublica.

A pro-life license plate on a car in Montgomery, Ala. (William Widmer, special to ProPublica)


U.S. Supreme Court decides Roe v. Wade, making abortion legal in all 50 states. But in his majority opinion, Justice Harry Blackmun notes, “If this suggestion of personhood is established, [Roe’s] case, of course, collapses, for the fetus’ right to life would then be guaranteed specifically by the [14th] Amendment.” A week later, a Maryland congressman proposes a Human Life Amendment — the first of more than 330 versions proposed or introduced over the next four decades.


The election of Ronald Reagan and a GOP Senate with many new pro-life members raises hopes among abortion opponents for passage of a constitutional amendment.


The Senate holds its first — and only — floor vote on a Human Life Amendment. The measure fails by a wide margin, and personhood proponents shift to a strategy of changing laws at the state level.


Minnesota becomes the first state to pass a “fetal homicide” law, followed quickly by North Dakota. By 2014, 38 states have similar statutes.


A Florida mother named Jennifer Johnson becomes the first known American woman to be convicted of delivering drugs to her baby through the umbilical cord. The conviction, obtained under a statute meant for drug traffickers, is later unanimously overturned.


In Whitner v. South Carolina, the South Carolina Supreme Court rules that pregnant women who endanger their viable fetuses — specifically by using illegal drugs — may be prosecuted under state child abuse laws. The ruling is the first (and until 2013, the only) by a state high court allowing the criminal prosecution of pregnant drug abusers for endangering their unborn children.


In Ferguson v. City of Charleston, the U.S. Supreme Court says a state hospital’s rule requiring pregnant women to be tested for drugs and positive results to be reported to police violates the 4th Amendment. But the ruling is narrowly tailored, and by 2014, drug-testing of pregnant women and newborns is common in many states.

Arizona becomes the first state to grant birth certificates for stillborn babies. The so-called Missing Angels movement takes off, and by 2014, more than 30 states have similar laws.


Congress passes the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, the first federal law making it a crime to harm or kill a fetus during an act of violence against the mother. UWVA only covers federal crimes, and its passage triggers a new wave of similar laws at the state level.


Kristi Burton, a homeschooled college student in Colorado, almost singlehandedly gets Amendment 48, a ground-breaking measure that defines a constitutionally protected person as “any human being from the moment of fertilization,” onto the state ballot. Voters reject the measure by 3 to 1, but the group Personhood USA is born, and a new, more militant personhood movement emerges.


Mississippi personhood proponents succeed in getting Initiative 26, which would amend the state constitution to grant full legal rights to fertilized eggs, on the November ballot. Eight weeks before the election, the measure seems sure to pass. But after doctors and abortion-rights groups mount a campaign arguing that the measure would have far-reaching effects on birth control, in vitro fertilization, and a doctor’s ability to provide care for pregnant women, voters reject the initiative by a wide margin.


A unanimous Oklahoma Supreme Court throws out a ballot measure that would have given embryos full personhood rights, ruling it “clearly unconstitutional” because it would ban abortion. The U.S. Supreme Court declines to hear an appeal and the voters never get a chance to weigh in.


In Ex Parte Ankrom and Kimbrough, the Alabama Supreme Court rules that the state’s chemical endangerment law, written to protect children from dangerous meth labs, can be used to prosecute women who use drugs during pregnancy. Personhood USA hails the ruling as “the most important affirmation of the personhood of the pre-born child since [Roe].”

North Dakota lawmakers become the first in the U.S. to pass a personhood amendment. But the measure — which would alter the state constitution to say, “The inalienable right to life of every human being at any stage of development must be recognized and protected”—must be ratified by voters.


Tennessee becomes the first state to enact a law specifically allowing prosecution of pregnant women who use drugs. The criminal assault statute carries penalties of up to 15 years in prison.

The National Personhood Alliance, an offshoot of Georgia Right to Life, announces its formation. The group describes itself as “Christ-centered” and “biblically informed… dedicated to the non-violent advancement of the recognition and protection of the God-given, inalienable right to life of all innocent human beings as legal persons at every stage of their biological development.”

Personhood politics play a big role in the November elections. North Dakotans weigh Measure 1, the proposed amendment approved in 2013. In Colorado, Amendment 67, aka Brady’s Law, seeks to amend the state constitution to include unborn human beings under the definition of “person” and “child” throughout the state’s criminal code and is a key issue in the race for the U.S. Senate.

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