Defeating Colorado’s Personhood Amendment: Interview w/ Cara DeGette, Communications Director of the 'No on 62' Campaign

In this guest post on Colorado’s Amendment 62, a ballot initiative that, if passed, would grant full legal rights to fertilized human eggs by classifying embryos as 'persons' under the law, Trina Stout interviews Cara DeGette, Communications Director for the No on 62 campaign.--Matthew Nisbet

I see that No on 62 is using four overarching messages, or frames: that the amendment would jeopardize women’s health, create a legal nightmare, overstep government’s role, and violate religious freedom. Is there a frame I missed, and what was the thinking behind using those frames?

I think you’ve hit on the biggies. In terms of what our thinking was behind framing exactly how dangerous Amendment 62 was, those areas are huge and broad, and they reflect just how far Amendment 62 would go in so many areas. We talk about the fact that it would be devastating for reproductive health. We also need to make sure that people know that extending legal and constitutional rights to fertilized eggs would amend Colorado’s constitution, which is serious business, and in doing so it would affect 20,000 different laws and statutes. The Colorado Bar Association and the Colorado Women’s Bar Association attorneys came out to speak on just how overreaching this proposal is from a legal perspective. 

Focusing on those four areas, and really many more beyond those -- it’s a broad canvas that we’re working with. We wanted to incorporate all of them into our message that we’re taking to voters to warn them about just how far-reaching this proposal is.

What would this amendment mean for stem-cell research, and does the No on 62 campaign plan to focus any messaging on that?

Yes, and we have focused on that. We held an event where several doctors and nurses and medical researchers gathered to talk about the dangers [of Amendment 62] from their perspective. The Colorado Medical Society is one of the many health advocacy organizations that have come out in opposition to [Amendment] 62. The wording of the amendment this year, which defines life from the “moment of biological development” -- there is no actual meaning to that. There is no scientific, there’s no medical, there’s no legal definition of that, so from their perspective -- that of scientists and doctors and medical professionals -- it would impact everything from stem cell research to being able to treat a woman who has an ectopic pregnancy, to treating women who’ve had a miscarriage.

[The medical community’s] concerns have ranged from whether or not, if they were to treat a woman with an ectopic pregnancy, they would be investigated and potentially charged with some sort of criminal charge for treating that woman. And that’s because under Amendment 62, a doctor would have to weigh whether to treat the woman with the ectopic pregnancy or keep the fertilized egg lodged in the fallopian tube until it ruptures.**

So that’s just one of many, many, many different scenarios that doctors and nurses and medical professionals have been sounding the alarm about, because they’re very concerned that this would impact their ability not just to treat women, but also to continue using stem cell research to try to develop different cures and treatments for everything from Alzheimer’s to Parkinson’s to diabetes.

In addition, and this is important too, because it involves the use of science and technology, [Amendment 62] would impact in vitro fertilization. Many doctors and in vitro specialists have spoken out, very concerned that they would no longer be able to help families who want to have children.

Who is your audience? Whom do you consider the persuadables, and are there people that both you and the Yes on 62 people are pursuing?

I have no idea who the proponents of 62 are pursuing. Our job as the No on 62 campaign is to reach out and educate as many people as we can. This is a statewide ballot initiative, so we’re trying to educate as many people as possible.

We have over 60 organizations that have signed on in support of our efforts to defeat 62. It’s a broad based, nonpartisan coalition -- doctors, nurses, medical researchers, faith leaders, religious leaders, health advocacy organizations, youth advocacy organizations, community advocacy organizations. Through those groups we’ve been trying to build our support.

We’ve found that voters in Colorado, just as they are all over the country, are not as enthusiastic [as they were in 2008], or it’s a different kind of voter enthusiasm, so our job has been to reach out to those individuals that might not otherwise be super enthusiastic. And [Amendment 62] is definitely an issue for youth voters, for women voters, for people of color who really, really feel strongly about this issue and so we’re hoping to tap into their energy to make sure that they help us educate people in knowing exactly what is at stake with Amendment 62.

How are you reaching your target audience? Through what media? What is role of online/social media?

The role of social media is huge. It’s a natural way for us to reach a huge segment of the population and our audience, and be able to connect them and keep them connected to the issue. We’ve used our Facebook page quite a bit. We have a pretty dynamic website. We’ve got some videos that we’ve produced, and our TV ad went up this week all over Colorado.

Beyond our social media efforts, we’ve had a series of educational press conferences and opportunities to talk to the media and the public by highlighting special areas that would be impacted. For example, we had a kick-off rally to announce our broad-based, bipartisan coalition, and we’ve had events.

We had a faith event where we had a rabbi and two ministers and the executive director of the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado gather to talk about their concerns and their opposition to Amendment 62, speaking from a faith perspective. We had a rally in Colorado Springs that was pretty intense; we had some incredible speakers, including Shelby Knox, who was the subject of the 2005 award-winning documentary The Education of Shelby Knox.

We’re having an event featuring what we’re calling “Women of Courage,” survivors of rape, survivors of miscarriage, and a cancer survivor who are going to be speaking about their personal experiences in relation to what would have happened to them had Amendment 62 been in place, which would have been incredibly devastating, on top of the devastation that they’d already experienced.

We’re doing a series of On the Bus tours, where activists and advocates for reproductive health and in opposition of [Amendment] 62 have gotten, literally, on the bus and traveled around different parts of the state in efforts to canvass neighborhoods to educate voters about the dangers of [Amendment] 62.

Editorials have been coming in from all over the state on our side. I don’t think that there’s one news organization that has -- well, I know there’s not been one news organization that has endorsed [Amendment] 62, and most news organizations have come out strongly in opposition to Amendment 62. And that includes [news organizations] from fairly conservative areas of the state. We even got endorsement for No on 62 from the Colorado Springs Gazette, which two years ago was the only newspaper in the state to endorse [nearly identical Amendment] 

Do you think Personhood Colorado put Amendment 62 on the ballot with intention to draw conservatives to the polls, similar to how gay marriage initiatives were used in 2004? Ultimately, do you think Amendment 62 will spur more conservatives to the polls, or more progressives?

From our perspective, Amendment 62 is a rallying call for progressives and conservative voters -- and everybody in between -- to come out and oppose the measure. It’s not just the impact on reproductive health issues, which everybody should be concerned about. It goes so far that most conservatives, as well as progressives that I know, really have a hard time with the idea of banning emergency contraception, and the Pill, and all abortion -- even when a woman has been raped or is the victim of incest, or when a woman’s life is at risk. We also have the fact that this is a huge, huge intrusion by politicians and lawyers and the courts to come into our personal lives, and that is a turn-off for most voters.

As to Personhood Colorado’s intentions, you’d definitely have to speak to them, but I do know that this is part of a national agenda that this group wants to introduce to other states. Colorado has been a fertile ground for them to try this simply because it’s very easy in Colorado to get a statewide amendment on the ballot, even when brought by a fringe group. It’s important for us to remember that this is part of a national agenda, so what’s happening in Colorado may very likely be coming to a state near you.

--Guest post by Trina Stout, a graduate student at American University's School of Communication, focusing on a career in reproductive health advocacy. Before graduate school, she worked for the environmental news and humor site Grist.

** Weighing fetal vs. women’s lives is a reality in countries that have banned abortion. Doctors, by refusing pregnant women medical treatment for fear of inducing miscarriage, recently killed a woman in Poland and paralyzed a teen rape survivor in Peru.

See Also:

No on Amendment 62 Campaign Appeals to Voters Seeking Fertility Treatments

Amendment 62: "It Still Goes Too Far" vs. "Persons, not Property"

Amendment 62: Colorado to Vote on Whether Fertilized Eggs Are People (Again)

Follow Age of Engagement on Twitter.

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One victim can break our hearts. Remember the image of the young Syrian boy discovered dead on a beach in Turkey in 2015? Donations to relief agencies soared after that image went viral. However, we feel less compassion as the number of victims grows. Are we incapable of feeling compassion for large groups of people who suffer a tragedy, such as an earthquake or genocide? Of course not, but the truth is we aren't as compassionate as we'd like to believe, because of a paradox of large numbers. Why is this?

Compassion is a product of our sociality as primates. In his book, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Peter Singer states, "Human beings are social animals. We were social before we were human." Mr. Singer goes on to say, "We can be sure that we restrained our behavior toward our fellows before we were rational human beings. Social life requires some degree of restraint. A social grouping cannot stay together if its members make frequent and unrestrained attacks on one another."

Attacks on ingroups can come from forces of nature as well. In this light, compassion is a form of expressed empathy to demonstrate camaraderie.

Yet even after hundreds of centuries of evolution, when tragedy strikes beyond our community, our compassion wanes as the number of displaced, injured and dead mounts.

The drop-off in commiseration has been termed the collapse of compassion, (Slovic 2007).¹ The term has also been defined in The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science: ". . . people tend to feel and act less compassionately for multiple suffering victims than for a single suffering victim."²

That the drop-off happens has been widely documented, but at what point this phenomenon happens remains unclear. One paper, written by Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll, sets out a simple formula, ". . . where the emotion or affective feeling is greatest at N =1 but begins to fade at N = 2 and collapses at some higher value of N that becomes simply 'a statistic.'"³

The ambiguity of "some higher value" is curious. That value may relate to Dunbar's Number⁴, a theory developed by British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. His research centers on communal groups of primates that evolved to support and care for larger and larger groups as their brains (our brains) expanded in capacity. Dunbar's is the number of people with whom we can maintain a stable relationship — approximately 150.

Some back story

Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford has published considerable research on anthropology and evolutionary psychology. His work is informed by anthropology, sociology and psychology. Dunbar's Number is a cognitive boundary, one we are likely incapable of breaching. The number is based around two notions; that brain size in primates correlates with the size of the social groups they live among and that these groups in human primates are relative to communal numbers set deep in our evolutionary past. In simpler terms, 150 is about the maximum number of people with whom we can identify with, interact with, care about, and work to protect. Dunbar's Number falls along a logorithmic continuum, beginning with the smallest, most emotionally connected group of five, then expanding outward in multiples of three: 5, 15, 50, 150. The numbers in these concentric circles are affected by multiple variables, including the closeness and size of immediate and extended families, along with the greater cognitive capacity of some individuals to maintain stable relationships with larger than normal group sizes. In other words, folks with more cerebral candlepower can engage with larger groups. Those with lesser cognitive powers, smaller groups.

The number that triggers "compassion collapse" might be different for individuals, but I think it may begin to unravel along the continuum of Dunbar's relatable 150. We can commiserate with 5 to 15 to 150 people because upon those numbers, we can overlay names and faces of people we know: our families, friends and coworkers, the members of our clan. In addition, from an evolutionary perspective, that number is important. We needed to care if bands of our clan were being harmed by raids, disaster, or disease, because our survival depended on the group staying intact. Our brains developed the capacity to care for the entirety of the group but not beyond it. Beyond our ingroup was an outgroup that may have competed with us for food and safety and it served us no practical purpose to feel sad that something awful had happened to them, only to learn the lessons so as to apply them for our own survival, e.g., don't swim with hippos.


Imagine losing 10 family members in a house fire. Now instead, lose 10 neighbors, 10 from a nearby town, 10 from Belgium, 10 from Vietnam 10 years ago. One could almost feel the emotion ebbing as the sentence drew to a close.

There are two other important factors which contribute to the softening of our compassion: proximity and time. While enjoying lunch in Santa Fe, we can discuss the death toll in the French revolution with no emotional response but might be nauseated to discuss three children lost in a recent car crash around the corner. Conflict journalists attempt to bridge these geotemporal lapses but have long struggled to ignite compassion in their home audience for far-flung tragedies, Being a witness to carnage is an immense stressor, but the impact diminishes across the airwaves as the kilometers pile up.

A Dunbar Correlation

Where is the inflection point at which people become statistics? Can we find that number? In what way might that inflection point be influenced by the Dunbar 150?

"Yes, the Dunbar number seems relevant here," said Gad Saad, PhD., the evolutionary behavioral scientist from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University, Montreal, in an email correspondence. Saad also recommended Singer's work.

I also went to the wellspring. I asked Professor Dunbar by email if he thought 150 was a reasonable inflection point for moving from compassion into statistics. He graciously responded, lightly edited for space.

"The short answer is that I have no idea, but what you suggest is perfect sense.

"One-hundred and fifty is the inflection point between the individuals we can empathize with because we have personal relationships with them and those with whom we don't have personalized relationships. There is, however, also another inflection point at 1,500 (the typical size of tribes in hunter-gatherer societies) which defines the limit set by the number of faces we can put names to. After 1,500, they are all completely anonymous.

"All this is set out in various articles and books. The two most obvious are: Dunbar (2016) Human Evolution. Oxford University Press (and) Dunbar (2014). The social brain: psychological underpinnings and implications for the structure of organizations. Current Directions in Psychological Research 24: 109-114."

I asked Dunbar if he knows of or suspects a neurophysiological aspect to the point where we simply lose the capacity to manage our compassion:

"These limits are underpinned by the size of key bits of the brain (mainly the frontal lobes, but not wholly). There are a number of studies showing this, both across primate species and within humans."

In his literature, Professor Dunbar presents two reasons why his number stands at 150, despite the ubiquity of social networking: the first is time—investing our time in a relationship is limited by the number of hours we have available to us in a given week. The second is our brain capacity measured in primates by our brain volume.

Friendship, kinship and limitations

"We devote around 40% of our available social time to our 5 most intimate friends and relations," Dunbar has written, "(the subset of individuals on whom we rely the most) and the remaining 60% in progressively decreasing amounts to the other 145." ⁵

These brain functions are costly, in terms of time, energy and emotion. Dunbar states, "There is extensive evidence, for example, to suggest that network size has significant effects on health and well-being, including morbidity and mortality, recovery from illness, cognitive function, and even willingness to adopt healthy lifestyles." This suggests that we devote so much energy to our own network that caring about a larger number may be too demanding.

"These differences in functionality may well reflect the role of mentalizing competencies. The optimal group size for a task may depend on the extent to which the group members have to be able to empathize with the beliefs and intentions of other members so as to coordinate closely…" This neocortical-to-community model carries over to compassion for others, whether in or out of our social network. Time constrains all human activity, including time to feel.

As Dunbar writes in The Anatomy of Friendship, "Friendship is the single most important factor influencing our health, well-being, and happiness. Creating and maintaining friendships is, however, extremely costly, in terms of both the time that has to be invested and the cognitive mechanisms that underpin them. Nonetheless, personal social networks exhibit many constancies, notably in their size and their hierarchical structuring." Our mental capacity may be the primary reason we feel less empathy and compassion for larger groups; we simply don't have the cerebral apparatus to manage their plights. "Part of friendship is the act of mentalizing, or mentally envisioning the landscape of another's mind. Cognitively, this process is extraordinarily taxing, and as such, intimate conversations seem to be capped at about four people before they break down and form smaller conversational groups. If the conversation involves speculating about an absent person's mental state (e.g., gossiping), then the cap is three—which is also a number that Shakespeare's plays respect."

We cannot mentalize what is going on in the minds of people in our groups much beyond our inner circle, so it stands to reason we cannot do it for large groups separated from us by geotemporal lapses.

Emotional regulation

In a paper,⁶ C. Daryl Cameron and Keith B. Payne state, "Some researchers have suggested that [compassion collapse] happens because emotions are not triggered by aggregates. We provide evidence for an alternative account. People expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming, and, as a result, they engage in emotion regulation to prevent themselves from experiencing overwhelming levels of emotion. Because groups are more likely than individuals to elicit emotion regulation, people feel less for groups than for individuals."⁶

This argument seems to imply that we have more control over diminishing compassion than not. To say, "people expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming" suggests we consciously consider what that caring could entail and back away from it, or that we become aware that we are reaching and an endpoint of compassion and begin to purposely shift the framing of the incident from one that is personal to one that is statistical. The authors offer an alternative hypothesis to the notion that emotions are not triggered by aggregates, by attempting to show that we regulate our emotional response as the number of victims becomes perceived to be overwhelming. However, in the real world, for example, large death tolls are not brought to us one victim at a time. We are told, about a devastating event, then react viscerally.

If we don't begin to express our emotions consciously, then the process must be subconscious, and that number could have evolved to where it is now innate.

Gray matter matters

One of Dunbar's most salient points is that brain capacity influences social networks. In his paper, The Social Brain, he writes: "Path analysis suggests that there is a specific causal relationship in which the volume of a key prefrontal cortex subregion (or subregions) determines an individual's mentalizing skills, and these skills in turn determine the size of his or her social network (Powell et all., 2012)"

It's not only the size of the brain but in fact, mentalizing recruits different regions for ingroup empathy. The Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education published a study of the brain regions activated when showing empathy for strangers in which the authors stated, "Interestingly, in brain imaging studies of mentalizing, participants recruit more dorsal portions of the medial prefrontal cortex (dMPFC; BA 8/9) when mentalizing about strangers, whereas they recruit more ventral regions of the medial prefrontal cortex (BA 10), similar to the MPFC activation reported in the current study, when mentalizing about close others with whom participants experience self-other overlap."⁷

It's possible the region of the brain that activates to help an ingroup member evolved for good reason, survival of the group. Other regions may have begun to expand as those smaller tribal groups expanded into larger societies.

Rabbit holes

There is an eclectic list of reasons why compassion may collapse, irrespective of sheer numbers:

(1) Manner: How the news is presented affects viewer framing. In her book, European Foreign Conflict Reporting: A Comparative Analysis of Public News, Emma Heywood explores how tragedies and war are offered to the viewers, which can elicit greater or lesser compassionate responses. "Techniques, which could raise compassion amongst the viewers, and which prevail on New at Ten, are disregarded, allowing the victims to remain unfamiliar and dissociated from the viewer. This approach does not encourage viewers to engage with the sufferers, rather releases them from any responsibility to participate emotionally. Instead compassion values are sidelined and potential opportunities to dwell on victim coverage are replaced by images of fighting and violence."⁸

(2) Ethnicity. How relatable are the victims? Although it can be argued that people in western countries would feel a lesser degree of compassion for victims of a bombing in Karachi, that doesn't mean people in countries near Pakistan wouldn't feel compassion for the Karachi victims at a level comparable to what westerners might feel about a bombing in Toronto. Distance has a role to play in this dynamic as much as in the sound evolutionary data that demonstrate a need for us to both recognize and empathize with people who look like our communal entity. It's not racism; it's tribalism. We are simply not evolved from massive heterogeneous cultures. As evolving humans, we're still working it all out. It's a survival mechanism that developed over millennia that we now struggle with as we fine tune our trust for others.

In the end

Think of compassion collapse on a grid, with compassion represented in the Y axis and the number of victims running along the X. As the number of victims increases beyond one, our level of compassion is expected to rise. Setting aside other variables that may raise compassion (proximity, familiarity etc.), the level continues to rise until, for some reason, it begins to fall precipitously.

Is it because we've become aware of being overwhelmed or because we have reached max-capacity neuron load? Dunbar's Number seems a reasonable place to look for a tipping point.

Professor Dunbar has referred to the limits of friendship as a "budgeting problem." We simply don't have the time to manage a bigger group of friends. Our compassion for the plight of strangers may drop of at a number equivalent to the number of people with who we can be friends, a number to which we unconsciously relate. Whether or not we solve this intellectual question, it remains a curious fact that the larger a tragedy is, the more likely human faces are to become faceless numbers.

¹ Psychic Numbing and Genocide, Slovic, 2007

² The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science, 2017

³ The More Who Die, the Less We Care: Psychic Numbing and Genocide

⁴ Dunbar's Number

⁵ The Social Brain: Psychological Underpinnings and Implications for the Structure of Organizations

⁶Escaping affect: how motivated emotion regulation creates insensitivity to mass suffering. (Cameron, Payne 2011)

⁷ Stanford paper: "Empathy for the social suffering of friends and strangers recruits distinct patterns of brain activation"

European Foreign Conflict Reporting: A Comparative Analysis of Public News, Emma Heywood,+which+could+raise+compassion+amongst+the+viewers,+and+which+prevail+on+New+at+Ten&source=bl&ots=HgZpkKc-u5&sig=ACfU3U31FtWtYZby8QD9XQWR_8qMIHgnzA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwj8ndu05dngAhXwnuAKHVFcDHcQ6AEwAHoECAkQAQ#v=onepage&q=%E2%80%9CTechniques%2C%20which%20could%20raise%20compassion%20amongst%20the%20viewers%2C%20and%20which%20prevail%20on%20New%20at%20Ten&f=false

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