It’s an awkward moment at the Cheesecake Factory for Keith Mason. Over dinner in Denver recently, his wife, Jennifer, mentions she’ll be giving birth to their fourth child in August. Mason, a clean-cut guy with the unflappable air of a college quarterback, suddenly flaps. “Wow,” he says. “August? I guess I’ve been busy.”
The couple laughs. In the four years since Mason launched the pro-life group Personhood USA, he has been crisscrossing the country to convince voters that the best way to overturn Roe v. Wade, the ruling that legalized abortion, is to define human embryos as people from the moment of fertilization. The group has helped spark 22 “personhood” bills and ballot initiatives; while none has passed, in each ballot vote on personhood, the margin of defeat has declined. His group is now collecting signatures for ballot efforts in Colorado, Ohio, and Montana for the November elections and in Florida for 2014. “Wait and watch us grow,” he says confidently. “We’re like a weed.”
Personhood efforts have existed for decades, but they have never taken hold in the public imagination the way Mason’s work has. Nor have they been so present in the pro-life discourse. “They’re saying out loud what many anti-choice activists believe but don’t say upfront—they want to ban abortion in all circumstances,” says Donna Crane, a policy director at the advocacy group NARAL Pro-Choice America. “In some ways, it’s the more honest conversation to have.” And it has gathered supporters in this election season who include Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry. (Mitt Romney has demurred, but Mason says he is “hammering away” at the nominee.)
Mason, the man at the heart of the maelstrom, is part preacher, part hipster. A charismatic, green-eyed 31-year-old, he tools around town on a vintage motorbike, loves the metal band Deftones, and peppers his speech with gee-whiz phrases like “cool stuff, man” and the occasional biblical teaching. He, his 29-year-old wife, and his 34-year-old legal counsel, Gualberto Garcia Jones (who wears a backward pageboy cap and is also a sculptor), hope their youth will help recruit others like them to the team.
Pensive and pretty with long brown hair and dark eyes, Mason’s wife, Jennifer, is the group’s communications director. Her pro-life affinity started when she was a girl in California and learned that her mother had had an abortion; she became a full-fledged activist as a teenager, after seeing a graphic image.
Mason’s awareness of abortion also began early on. Growing up in an evangelical family in Aurora, Colo., he found a postcard wedged in the pages of his mother’s Bible showing “a little boy with his head missing,” he says. “I was 8 years old,” he recalls today, at the Personhood USA headquarters in a Denver office park. Mason found the abortion photo “deeply disturbing,” but didn’t dwell on it. He was young, he jokes, and had extreme skateboarding to think about. Although as a teenager he did protest outside an abortion clinic, he went to college to study business and heating and air conditioning, and planned a career in real estate.
Abigail Pesta discusses Personhood USA's push to ban abortion.
The turning point came after graduation, in 1999, when he and three friends took off on a summer motorcycle trip to California. His friends started “getting stoned and drinking a lot while on their bikes,” and he ditched them. Finding himself at loose ends, he went to an abortion protest, which at least seemed like familiar territory. The rally, packed with young people, made an impression. “I felt like I had a chance to start a career making money, or dedicate myself to serving God,” he says.
It took time for Mason to get to personhood. He met his wife while praying outside an abortion clinic; the two married within five months—“Purity was very important to us,” he says—and they moved to Kansas to continue their pro-life work. The dominant efforts at the time were incremental: then, as now, activists aimed to contain access to abortion by passing legislation that would curtail abortion clinics or put up roadblocks, like waiting periods and parental consent, for those who have decided to abort. Mason and his wife joined in those efforts.
It was a 2006 campaign in South Dakota to ban abortion outright that got Mason wondering if the efforts to chip away at access were enough. “They were going after the heart of the matter,” he says. “I thought, wow, this is amazing.” Then in 2007 a young Colorado woman started a personhood ballot initiative, and Mason felt drawn home. He collected 103,000 signatures and got personhood on the state ballot—a first. On voting day, the measure got 27 percent of the vote. The next day, he launched Personhood USA.
Earlier efforts at personhood—in the 1970s and again in 2005—suffered from a lack of support and organization. They also faced a battle within the pro-life community itself. While some groups support defining embryos as legal people, the movement overall has feared that pushing a personhood law toward the Supreme Court is a recipe for judicial disaster. Paul Linton, former general counsel for the pro-life group Americans United for Life, says personhood is “fundamentally flawed,” as “no justice on the Supreme Court ... has ever expressed the view that the unborn child is or should be regarded as a federal constitutional ‘person.’”
But Mason is a dynamic and energetic organizer who galvanized enough pro-life Coloradans to get personhood on the state ballot again in 2010; it received 30 percent of the vote. More important, it grabbed national headlines and attracted some pro-lifers who came to believe it was a viable political strategy.
Today, his nonprofit group works by connecting with local pro-life activists to spur state ballot initiatives. He says his team has gained more than 80,000 volunteers and more than a million signatures. In 2011 personhood got 42 percent in a ballot vote in Mississippi. This year in Oklahoma, the state Supreme Court blocked a ballot effort, a decision Mason is appealing with the U.S. Supreme Court.
Mason’s efforts have kicked up a storm of opposition among women’s-rights activists, who claim such laws would ban birth control as well as in vitro fertilization and stem-cell research, both of which can result in the destruction of embryos.
Mason disputes these claims, saying he does “not oppose contraceptives,” but rather methods that “kill a living human being.” The copper IUD and the morning-after pill would fit that category, as the FDA says they can prohibit an egg from implanting in the womb after fertilization, though the science behind this has been hotly contested. As for IVF, Mason says it wouldn’t be banned, but “reformed,” without specifying how.
Miscarriage could be another flash point, says Lynn Paltrow, executive director of the advocacy group National Advocates for Pregnant Women. She thinks personhood could put mothers who miscarry under undue scrutiny. Already in 38 states, fetal-homicide laws can put mothers on trial for murder if a fetus dies—starting from the first moment of pregnancy in some states. “There’s no way to give embryos constitutional personhood without subtracting women from the community of constitutional persons,” she says.
Mason calls these claims “ridiculous.” But, he adds, “I know of cases where a woman that is addicted to crack will have her baby and the state will take the crack baby away because of child abuse and mandate the woman receive treatment—I’m good with that.”
As Mason’s team gathers signatures for the fall ballots in his most ambitious season so far, opponents are bracing for a fight. Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union, and other groups have filed lawsuits and launched extensive publicity campaigns. Personhood is a “formidable presence in every state,” says NARAL’s Crane. “If any one of these initiatives passes, it could work its way through the courts. And the courts can’t necessarily be counted on these days to make decisions that will protect women’s health.”
Mason is undaunted: “As long as I have arms, I’m gonna be swinging them.”