Twenty years after anti-abortion protests made history at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, Colorado has become a battleground for reproductive rights, and the next generation of activists is targeting Denver to commemorate the occasion.
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In the election year of 1988, Michael Dukakis was the Democrats' nominee to succeed Ronald Reagan as president. Dukakis' chief message was economic: Reaganomics had left Middle America behind. But in Atlanta that summer, the Democratic National Convention had forced a different agenda for city officials: Hundreds of anti-abortion protestors had landed in the sweltering Southern city, and their plans for Atlanta extended beyond the convention. For the next six weeks, they repeatedly targeted abortion-providing clinics throughout the city, eventually resulting in more than 1,600 pro-lifers making their way through Georgia's court system. It was the maiden voyage of what would become the most well-known anti-abortion effort in U.S. history.
Two decades later, the Democratic National Convention comes to Denver at a significant moment in the battle over reproductive choices in Colorado, and anti-abortion protestors have used the twenty-year milestone as a clarion call to the pro-life faithful. Colorado has emerged as a battleground for the future of abortion rights, and both sides of the debate agree the stakes are high.
Amendment 48, a pro-life ballot initiative that is historic in its potential impact, will be presented to Colorado voters in November. Meanwhile, a new brand of anti-abortion street protesting has cropped up around Denver. Both efforts have drawn out-of-state attention and resources from national right-to-life groups, and both are spearheaded by believers under 30 years old. Believers like 21-year-old Kristi Burton.
Burton is the founder of Colorado for Equal Rights, the group behind Amendment 48, or the "personhood amendment," as its supporters call it. She says God gave her the idea after she spoke with friends who regretted their abortions.
"Our intent is to lay the foundation to protect every person," she says, "no matter how small."
To Burton, "small" could mean microscopic. If approved by voters in November, Amendment 48 would alter Colorado's constitution to grant legal rights to a human embryo. This is the first time voters anywhere will be asked to define the point at which life, or personhood, begins. Pro-life groups in Montana working on an almost identical measure failed to get the signatures necessary to land it on the ballot there.
Burton's is a good face for a movement to have. Home-schooled in rural Peyton, Burton is pretty and petite, with sparkling eyes and blond hair that frames her face. When she talks to reporters, she's animated; her hands and her whole body move to emphasize a point. This energy is no doubt a driving force behind the campaign that so far has the support of more than 500 Colorado churches and is $150,000 toward its fund-raising goal of $3 million.
"Garnering grassroots support for the amendment has been much easier than I expected," Burton says. "So many people have seemed to come out of nowhere to work on this and support it because they have a passion to see every person protected."
But the buildup around Amendment 48 has also exposed a major shift in philosophy among abortion foes.
"This is a change in Colorado anti-choice tactics, and it would represent a national change in priorities for the anti-choice movement," says Crystal Clinkenbeard, spokeswoman for the No on Amendment 48 campaign, which encompasses more than 30 progressive organizations, including Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado, COLOR (Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights), and others.
Clinkenbeard calls Amendment 48 a concerted and coordinated departure from the "chip-away" approach favored by pro-life groups over the past two decades, designed to "chip away" at Roe v. Wade by passing laws requiring parental notification (which Colorado has), 24-hour waiting periods, and mandatory ultrasounds (which Colorado does not have). The majority of such bills have been defeated in their respective state legislatures.
Progressive groups fear Amendment 48 unveils a far more extreme face of anti-abortion ideology. By defining an embryo as a person with rights, Amendment 48 circumvents these incremental efforts. Opponents believe its passage will wreak legal havoc upon everything from emergency birth control for rape victims to in vitro fertilization.
"You could trigger government investigations anytime a woman has a miscarriage, because the state would have the right to find out what happened to that fertilized egg," Clinkenbeard says.
She points to the fact that certain moderate pro-life groups have been hesitant thus far to support Amendment 48. The Colorado Catholic Conference, for example, has not endorsed it.
"Righteousness is rarely popular," argues Leslie Hanks, the vice president of Colorado Right to Life and a 20-year veteran of the anti-abortion movement. The change in focus, she says, comes after years of failed strategy and ineffective legislation. A new guard of inspired young Christians, along with a renewed drive in the movement, has changed that.
Hanks counts Kristi Burton among her personal heroes and says pro-life efforts in Colorado are stronger now than ever.
"Getting the personhood amendment on the ballot was our highest priority this year," she says.
Conversely, defeating it ranks high for opponents. And they don't want to merely defeat it; they want to defeat it by a landslide. Because they know as well as Burton and Hanks that social issues, such as abortion and gay rights, have the power to deliver conservatives to the polls, especially during a presidential election year.