A state senator is wading into the contentious issue of "personhood" — when a fetus becomes a human being — which has been a deeply divisive issue in other states.
Freshman Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, said he was approached by individuals, whom he would not name, seeking the legislation and he has opened a bill file titled "Joint Resolution on Human Life" to begin a dialogue with interested groups.
"I really want to be careful with it because I recognize the sensitivity of this," Osmond said.
He said he hasn’t decided if he will need a constitutional amendment to define when life begins. But he has opened a file for a resolution, which could simply state the sense of the Legislature or it could be the first step to amend the Constitution. If the resolution receives a two-thirds vote from both the House and Senate, the constitutional amendment could be put on the ballot for voter approval in November.
"That’s where we’re headed. There’s no doubt we’re trying to define when life begins, when a person becomes a person," Osmond said.
Karrie Galloway, director of Planned Parenthood of Utah, said she hopes to meet with Osmond about the issue next week, but the title causes her great concern.
"There has been a movement in the country for the personhood amendments, and it concerns us if that’s the direction he’s going," Galloway said. "Does he realize the implications for the state of Utah?"
She said she wants to find out whether Osmond is seeking binding legislation or is instead looking at a nonbinding resolution or declaration from the Legislature, which wouldn’t draw much opposition.
"If we’re talking about a sense of the Legislature with a resolution, I know the sense of the Legislature and I won’t be surprised," Galloway said. "But if they are considering changing the constitution of the state of Utah, which will impact a whole lot more than abortion, it will impact contraception, in-vitro fertilization, it will impact the lives of so many people, which is the reason one of these things has never passed."
In Mississippi last year, there was a major clash over a proposed amendment stating that life begins at fertilization. Advocates on both sides spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, and religious and political leaders were divided over the issue, which ultimately was rejected by 55 percent of voters.
The Colorado-based group Personhood USA has committed to putting similar initiatives on the ballot in a dozen states, including Florida, Montana, Ohio and Oregon this year. Colorado voters rejected the personhood amendment in both 2008 and 2010.
But Osmond’s effort is more homegrown.
Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum, said the idea of a personhood amendment arose last week during the Eagle Forum’s Family Action Coalition meeting, which Osmond attended.
"Senator Osmond was excited to work with us on pro-life legislation," she said. He offered to open the bill file, which had to be initiated this week, and Ruzicka said the group is still working through specifics of what form they would like the legislation to take.
"At this point we’re just looking at it because that’s what you have to do. We’ve got attorneys and others looking at it," she said. "We’ll probably decide in the next few days exactly what we’re going to do."
Ruzicka said she’s not surprised that Planned Parenthood would be concerned. She said the organization has opposed all of the pro-life bills the Eagle Forum has backed, and she expects they will oppose this one, too.
The Eagle Forum’s family coalition, Ruzicka said, has developed the ideas all on its own and hasn’t met with any outside groups or looked at efforts in other states.
"Whatever we do," she said, "it’s going to be our own."
Osmond is in his first legislative session after being chosen last spring to replace Sen. Chris Buttars, R-South Jordan, a veteran of Capitol Hill culture clashes, who sided with the Eagle Forum on numerous abortion bills and gay and lesbian issues.
House Minority Whip Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake City, said she doesn’t know which direction Osmond plans to take, but if he does proceed, she said, "We better have a very clear understanding, a factual understanding, of what it is we’re talking about."
"I hope the conversation is based on peer-reviewed scientific evidence," she said. "The issue carries enormous potential for a huge amount of government intrusion in a deeply personal aspect of the lives of people, their families and their faith."
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