Legislative Lowlights: Lawmakers in Four States Want to Bring Fetal ‘Personhood’ to the Ballot Box

Republicans in Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, and Montana want voters to weigh in on state constitutional amendments for fetal "personhood."

[Photo: A number of voters at their respective voting booths.]
Republicans in Iowa last week introduced a joint resolution proposing an amendment to the state constitution specifying that it does not secure or protect a right to abortion or require the funding of abortion. The proposal is similar to an amendment approved by voters last year in West Virginia. FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

Rewire.News tracks anti-choice and anti-LGBTQ legislation as it works its way through state legislatures. Here’s an overview of the bills we’re watching.

Anti-choice restrictions were considered in at least 16 states last week, lawmakers in four states want fetal “personhood” on the ballot, and a Republican in Mississippi wants to protect teachers who purposely misgender their students.


Last Tuesday, state Sen. Jason Rapert (R-Conway) introduced the “Arkansas Human Life Protection Act,” which would trigger a state-wide abortion ban if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade. The measure would make abortion a felony—punishable by up to ten years imprisonment and/or a $100,000 fine—to perform or attempt to perform an abortion. If it passes, Arkansas would be the fifth state to have a so-called “trigger law” on the books. Louisiana, Mississippi, South Dakota, and North Dakota all have laws that would immediately re-criminalize abortion should Roe v. Wade fall.


State Sen. Robert Sampson (R-Wolcott) last Wednesday introduced a measure to require a medical provider to give notice to a parent or guardian of a pregnant minor seeking an abortion at least 48 hours prior to performing the abortion. The bill, SB 366, is similar to several measures in the state that have failed to pass in previous legislative sessions. And with Democrats retaining complete control of the Connecticut state government, this measure will likely follow suit.


Last Thursday, lawmakers in Delaware introduced legislation to ban abortion after 20 weeks. Except in cases of medical emergency, HB 52/SB 21 would prohibit physicians from performing or inducing an abortion without first determining the probable post-fertilization age of the fetus. If the fetus is determined to be 20 weeks post-fertilization—and absent any serious health risk to the pregnant person—abortion would be prohibited. A person who performs an abortion in violation of the law would face felony charges. The so-called “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” is based on model legislation drafted by the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) and employs junk science that falsely claims a fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks.

Conservative lawmakers also filed HB 53/SB 19, which would require physicians to inform patients of the opportunity to view ultrasound images and listen to the fetal heart tone prior to the performance of an abortion. Except in cases of medical emergency, a physician would need to obtain the patient’s signature on a form indicating that they were offered ultrasound image and auscultation services. The pregnant person would not be required to view the images or listen to the heartbeat. A physician who fails to conform to any of these requirements would be guilty of a misdemeanor, and subject to civil malpractice and professional disciplinary action. The “Woman’s Ultrasound Right to Know Act,” is based on model legislation drafted by Americans United for Life.


Last Thursday, lawmakers in Hawaii introduced a measure to give full legal protection to “born alive” infants. The “Born-Alive Infant Protection Act” is based on the myth that infants are “born alive” after abortions—and that doctors then murder them. The federal Born-Alive Infants Protection Act of 2002 already defines an infant “born alive” resulting from “natural or induced labor, cesarean section, or induced abortion.” The measure introduced in Hawaii copies legislation drafted by Americans United for Life by adding civil and criminal charges—including murder and manslaughter—for health-care providers who fail to provide the necessary treatment to a “born-alive” infant.


Republicans in Iowa last week introduced a joint resolution proposing an amendment to the state constitution specifying that it does not secure or protect a right to abortion or require the funding of abortion. The proposal is similar to an amendment approved by voters last year in West Virginia. An amendment to the Iowa Constitution must be agreed upon by two successive general assemblies before it can be submitted to voters. So even if it passes this year, the earliest it could be on the ballot would be in November 2020.


Last Tuesday, state Rep. Tim Miller (R-Prinsburg) introduced HF 271, which would prohibit the performance of an abortion once the fetus has a detectable heartbeat. Fetal heartbeats can be detected using a transvaginal ultrasound as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. This measure, however, specifically requires the use of an abdominal ultrasound—which can’t always detect a fetal heartbeat that early.

State Rep. Miller also co-sponsored a measure last week targeting abortion clinics. HF 275—introduced by state Rep. Eric Lucero (R-Dayton)—would require an abortion facility to retain all medical records related to each patient who obtains an abortion in the files of the facility for 30 years. The bill stipulates what information should be included in each medical record. Among the requirements: the patient’s medical history, procedure, and personal information including the patient’s name, address, and date of birth.


And now we get to talk about Mississippi. Last Monday, state Rep. Tom Weathersby (R-Florence) introduced HB 1176, which would protect teachers or staff that refer to a student’s biological sex as assigned at birth, despite a student’s preference “after undergoing stages of transition as a pansexual, transsexual or transgender whether through sex reassignment, gender identity transitioning, hormonal therapy treatment or other philosophical processes.” It’s not clear why pansexuals are included here, but I’m guessing it has to do with the fact that the state representative doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Republicans in the state house also spent last week filing more abortion restrictions, including two measures that could potentially ban all abortion in the state. House Concurrent Resolution 34 proposes an amendment to the state constitution to provide so-called right to life protections for embryos and fetuses. If passed, the amendment would be on the ballot this November. HB 1061 would make it a felony for a person to knowingly cause, or attempt to procure or produce, an abortion or miscarriage. Anyone who performs or attempts to perform or induce an abortion would be guilty of murder. Sponsored by state Rep. Dan Eubanks (R-Walls), the measure would also completely restrict state-funding of abortion—including when the procedure is necessary to save the life of a pregnant person.

State Rep. Eubanks joined other lawmakers to introduce a measure that amends current state law regarding injuries to pregnant people. The measure would revise criminal penalties for injuries to pregnant people that result in miscarriage or stillbirth to define “human being” and “person” to include an “unborn child” at every stage of gestation from conception until live birth. The bill specifies that the law would not apply to medical procedures required to prevent the death of either the pregnant person or their “unborn child,” as long as every reasonable effort has been made to preserve the life of each. But by doing so, the bill removes language in the criminal code that provides exceptions for legal abortions and the dispensing of lawfully prescribed medication. The bill doesn’t amend any other portion of state law regarding abortion, so it’s unclear how it would affect abortion providers.

And finally, conservative lawmakers rounded out the week with a measure targeting the use of aborted fetal tissue. HB 846 would prohibit licensed abortion facilities from selling stem cells that were derived from an aborted embryo or fetus. The state licensing agency would revoke the license of any abortion facility found to be in violation.


State Rep. Mike Moon (R-Ash Grove) last week introduced two separate personhood measures—one to amend state law and other to amend the state constitution. HJR 28 proposes a constitutional amendment to grant rights to embryos and fetuses by declaring that the term “person” includes “every human being, including every in utero human child at every stage of biological development from the moment of conception until birth.” The amendment would also clarify that the constitution doesn’t protect a right to abortion or require the funding of abortion. If the bill passes, the amendment would be on the ballot in November 2020, unless the governor calls a special election.

Rep. Moon’s other measure, the “Right to Due Process Act,” would amend state law to define everything from the moment of fertilization—including the human conceptus, zygote, morula, blastocyst, embryo, and fetus—as “child in a woman’s womb.” The measure would direct state law enforcement officers and the courts to enforce the state’s constitutional due process laws on behalf of all persons, including “children in women’s wombs.” Rep. Moon has been trying to pass a personhood law for years. Most notably, he sponsored the “All Lives Matter Act,” in 2016—a deliberate attempt at appropriating the Black Lives Matter movement in order to ban abortion.

Lawmakers from both chambers introduced legislation last week to ban abortion after 20 weeks. HB 680/SB 279 would prohibit a person from performing or inducing an abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy unless it’s necessary to prevent serious health risk to the pregnant person. Any physician or other licensed medical practitioner who violates the law would be considered to have acted outside the scope of practice permitted by law and may lose their license. The measures also include additional reporting requirements for physicians who perform an abortion.


On Friday, Montana became the fourth state of the week to propose a state constitutional amendment in order to grant rights to embryos and fetuses. The amendment proposed in HB 302 would define “person” to apply to “all members of mankind at any stage of development, beginning at the stage of fertilization or conception, regardless of age, health, level of functioning, or condition of dependency.” Any proposal to amend the state constitution would require a two-thirds vote of the entire legislature. If successful, the amendment would be on the ballot in November 2020.


On Thursday, state Sen. Kim Thatcher (R-Keizer) introduced a measure to ban abortion after 20 weeks. Except in case of a medical emergency, SB 648 would prohibit a person from performing or inducing, or attempting to perform or induce, an abortion when a physician has determined that the probable post-fertilization age of the fetus is 20 or more weeks. Like most “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection” Acts, the bill relies on junk science to declare that the fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks. With Democrats holding supermajorities in both chambers of the Oregon State Legislature, the measure will most likely fail.

Rhode Island

Democratic lawmakers in Rhode Island last week introduced two measures regarding fetal personhood. The “Rhode Island Right to Life Act of 2019” would amend state law—not the state constitution—to guarantee the right to life to each person at fertilization. The bill would recognize the right to life for a fetus, “both male and female.” The other measure—H 5199—is a resolution that recognizes that the “existence of a fetal heartbeat or flutter is evidence of the existence of human life.” If it passes, nothing would happen. It’s a simple resolution—a way for legislators to express their feelings without affecting current law. Both measures have committee hearings scheduled for Tuesday, January 29.

South Dakota

On Friday, lawmakers in South Dakota held committee hearings for two anti-choice measures, but only one bill advanced. SB 6, a measure that would have prohibited a physician from performing an abortion on a pregnant person without first displaying the sonogram images of the fetus so that the pregnant person may view the images, failed to pass out of committee by a 2-5 vote. SB 72, which would require abortion providers to provide their patients a specific form prescribed by the state department of health that contains the state’s informed consent requirements managed to pass out of committee by a 5-0 vote.

The state senate education committee held a hearing Thursday for SB 49, which would have banned transgender high school students from participating in athletic programs consistent with their gender identity. The ACLU and Human Rights Watch were among the many organizations that spoke out against the bill. In a bipartisan 5-2 vote, committee members rejected the measure. The very next day, lawmakers in the state house introduced HB 1108, which would prohibit instruction in gender identity or gender expression from being provided to any student in kindergarten through 7th grade in public schools. Because of course they did.


Republican lawmakers last Wednesday introduced a measure to prohibit abortion once a fetal heartbeat has been detected, except in the case of a medical emergency. The bill doesn’t specify what type of ultrasound should be used to detect the heartbeat—meaning abortion could be banned as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. If an emergency exists and the fetus has not attained viability, the abortion would need to be performed by a licensed physician. If an emergency exists and the fetus is viable, the bill would require the abortion procedure to be performed in a licensed hospital. This is the seventh state (after Florida, Kentucky, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, and South Carolina) to propose a heartbeat ban this year—and I am tired.


Last week, state Rep. Bill Zedler (R-Arlington) introduced the “Free to Believe Act.” The measure would create protections for “sincerely held religious beliefs” or moral convictions, and codifies discrimination against LGBTQ people. Such beliefs or convictions include the belief or conviction that “marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman; and the terms ‘male,’ ‘man,’ ‘female,’ and ‘woman’ refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at the time of birth.” Among its provisions:

  • Any religious organization can “make an employment-related decision, including firing, disciplining, or not hiring an individual whose conduct or religious beliefs are inconsistent with the beliefs of the religious organization.”
  • Texans can deny housing based on a religious belief or moral conviction.
  • Health-care providers can refuse to provide treatment or counseling for trans folks.
  • Schools and business owners can establish sex-specific standards or policies concerning “employee or student dress or grooming; or access to restrooms, spas, baths, showers, dressing rooms, locker rooms, or other intimate facilities or settings.”
  • Any person or entity can refuse to license or perform a marriage—or even offer goods and services—for same-sex couples.

The bill is very similar to Mississippi’s 2016 law—the “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act”—widely considered to be the most sweeping anti-LGBTQ law in the country.

If that wasn’t enough, state senate lawmakers introduced a measure that would allow private individuals employed in over 65 licensed occupations to deny services to people based on their “sincerely held religious belief.” The measure is essentially a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) for occupational license holders. It would essentially prohibit the state from limiting or burdening an applicant’s or license holders free exercise of religion. The bill clarifies that a license holder may not refuse to provide a medical service within the scope of the person’s license that is necessary to prevent death or imminent serious bodily injury. So there’s that at least.


Last Tuesday, state Rep. Merrill Nelson (R-Grantsville) and state Sen. Ralph Okerlund (R-Monroe) prefiled HB 153, which would prohibit people from being able to change the sex listed on their birth certificates. A federal judge struck down a similar law in Idaho last year. The measure would only allow a person to amend their birth certificate—with a court order—to change their name or correct any factual errors. Courts would be prohibited from allowing transgender citizens to change the sex listed on their birth certificate later in life. Included in the legislation are a couple cringe-worthy interpretations of what constitutes a man or woman. The measures defines “male” as “an individual with testes who is confirmed before or at birth to have external anatomical characteristics that appear to have the purpose of performing the natural reproductive function of providing and delivering sperm to a female recipient.” It defines “female” as “an individual with ovaries who is confirmed before or at birth to have external anatomical characteristics that appear to have the purpose of performing the natural reproductive function of providing eggs and receiving sperm from a male donor.” It’s unclear how the measure will do—but LGBTQ advocates have already pledged to fight it.

State Rep. Karianne Lisonbee (R-Clearfield) last Wednesday prefiled the “Down Syndrome Nondiscrimination Act.” The measure would prohibit a person from intentionally performing or attempting to perform an abortion if the pregnant person’s sole reason for the abortion is that the fetus has or may have Down syndrome, unless it’s necessary to avert the death or serious risk of substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant person. Physicians would be required to provide patients with materials containing contact information for state and national nonprofit Down syndrome organizations that provide information and support services for parents. The measure is similar to a 2016 Indiana law signed by then-Gov. Mike Pence (R) that was blocked twice in federal courts. A petition to review the case is still pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.


Despite Democrats having complete control of the Washington state government, Republican lawmakers haven’t given up their anti-choice efforts. Last week, state house members introduced legislation to ban all abortion at viability, certain types of abortion at 11 weeks, and a measure requiring additional reporting requirements for abortion providers. State Rep. Luanne Van Werven (R-Lynden) introduced HB 1525, which would require abortion providers to report whether an intrafetal injection—such as potassium chloride or digoxin—was used in an attempt to induce fetal demise prior to an abortion. Abortion clinics sometimes use intrafetal injections to comply with the federal Born-Alive Infants Protection Act of 2002. An identical measure failed to pass in 2017.

HB 1560 would make it a felony to perform or induce an abortion on a fetus which has been determined to have a probable post-fertilization age at the point of viability, unless an abortion is necessary due to a fetal anomaly or medical emergency. Even though the measure is called the “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act,” and contains legislative findings based on junk science that claims a fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks, it isn’t an explicit 20-week ban. Rather, the bill defines “viability” as “the point in the pregnancy when, in the judgment of the physician on the particular facts of the case before such physician, there is a reasonable likelihood of the fetus’s sustained survival outside the uterus without the application of extraordinary medical measures.”

On Thursday, state Rep. Brad Klippert (R-Kennewick) introduced HB 1560, which would ban dilation and evacuation (D and E) procedures—the most common method of performing second-trimester abortions—when the post-fertilization age of the fetus is eleven weeks or greater. Except in cases of medical emergency, the measure would make it a felony to perform the procedure—effectively banning certain types of abortion at 11 weeks, and most abortions after 15 weeks. The bill is almost an exact copy of Kentucky’s 11-Week D and E ban, which is temporarily blocked.


And finally, lawmakers in Wyoming last week introduced the “Unborn Victims of Violence Act.” The measure would create criminal offenses—including battery, manslaughter, and murder—for harm to an “unborn child.” Such offenses would not apply to lawful medical procedures or abortion. The bill defines “unborn child” as the “offspring of human beings from conception until birth.” A person convicted of murdering an “unborn child” could face life in prison.