‘Personhood’ President Keith Mason: Oklahoma Ruling Helps the Movement

Keith Mason tells Abigail Pesta he welcomes an Oklahoma ruling against his movement, saying it will build momentum.

Sue Ogrocki / AP Photo

Keith Mason, the president of Personhood USA, a nonprofit group that seeks to define human embryos as people with legal rights, told The Daily Beast he is “not surprised” about a decision by the Oklahoma Supreme Court to block a personhood ballot initiative his group had been backing in that state. In fact, Mason said, he welcomes the decision. “I see this as a momentum builder,” he said.

The personhood movement argues that life begins at conception. “That’s when your hair color, your eye color, your height are determined, ” Mason said. “That’s when you become a person.” He said the movement isn’t about politics but about acknowledging when life begins. “An action against a person is an action against God,” he said, in reference to abortion.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled on Monday that the initiative to put a personhood amendment on the state ballot was unconstitutional, as the proposed legislation would ban abortion, which the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized as a constitutional right.

Personhood USA said it plans to appeal the decision with the U.S. Supreme Court. Gualberto Garcia Jones, the group's legal analyst, said in a statement, "How can we, as U.S. citizens, exercise our rights to vote, or to petition the government, when those rights are infringed upon by state Supreme Court justices?"

Steve Crampton, vice president for legal affairs and general counsel for Liberty Counsel, which represents Personhood Oklahoma, said in a statement, "This ruling epitomizes judicial overreaching. It not only misinterprets and misapplies federal constitutional law, but it also denies states' rights and strips Oklahomans of their right to petition for a substantive change in state law."

Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is among several groups that had filed the suit against the personhood initiative, said in a statement, “In this case, the Oklahoma Constitution said it best: It is not acceptable to propose amendments that are ‘repugnant to the Constitution of the United States.’"

Mason told The Daily Beast, “In every state we go, groups like Planned Parenthood and the ACLU sue to take away our First Amendment right to free speech." He noted that similar suits against personhood ballot initiatives—in which activists collect thousands of signatures to bring amendments to state ballots—had failed. “It just gives us an opportunity to take the argument to a higher level," he said. "We’ve just begun the fight in Oklahoma.”

He said the court ruling could help his group because it “makes people mad.” He added, “It’s making the social tension so extreme. Oklahoma is one of the most pro-life states in America. It’s the Bible belt. This will help motivate the people of Oklahoma to fight."

The Center for Reproductive Rights had filed the suit against the initiative along with the American Civil Liberties Union and others. In its statement, the Center for Reproductive Rights said, “The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled unanimously today that a proposed ballot initiative to define a fertilized egg as a person was ‘clearly unconstitutional’ and cannot be added to the state ballot in November." The group added, "The initiative aimed to effectively ban all abortions and many types of birth control—and severely threaten fertility treatments such as in-vitro fertilization.”

Mason said opponents use birth control and in-vitro fertilization as "scare tactics." Regarding IVF, he said personhood would not ban but would reform the current process, in which embryos are discarded. As for birth control, he said the medical community needs to make clear which forms of contraception block an egg from implanting in the uterus after the egg has been fertilized.

Mason said his group has tens of thousands of volunteers around the country, fighting for personhood ballot initiatives in their states. He said, “If the power holders won’t affirm personhood, we’ll replace them.” He noted that his group was ready for the Oklahoma ruling and that it had “prepared strategies for this.”

Earlier this month, a personhood bill failed in the Oklahoma state legislature. The bill had passed the Senate, but Republican leadership in the House declined to bring it to a vote. The personhood movement in prior years has managed to get initiatives onto state ballots in Colorado and Mississippi, but lost the vote. The group is currently collecting signatures for another ballot initiative in Colorado.