Defeating Colorado’s Personhood Amendment: Interview w/ Cara DeGette, Communications Director of the 'No on 62' Campaign
Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. Nisbet studies the role of communication and advocacy in policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over over climate change, energy, and sustainability. Among awards and recognition, Nisbet has been a Visiting Shorenstein Fellow on Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a Google Science Communication Fellow. In 2011, the editors at the journal Nature recommended Nisbet's research as “essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in the climate change debate,” and the New Republic highlighted his work as a “fascinating dissection of the shortcomings of climate activism."
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.
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