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Petition to redefine “person” in Nevada Constitution dismissed

By ThisIsReno

By Phillip Moyer–Nevada News Bureau

CARSON CITY–The Nevada Personhood Petition, a ballot initiative to amend the Nevada Constitution in a way that alters the definition of “person” to include “every human being,” was ruled invalid by District Judge James Russell Friday. The judge said that the initiative’s generalized language and potentially broad effect would violate the Nevada’s single subject rule, which disallows ballot initiatives from addressing more than one question.

The initiative, proposed by advocacy group Personhood Nevada, defines “human being” as “everyone possessing a human genome specific for an individual member of the human species, from the beginning of his or her biological development, without discrimination as to age, health, reproduction method, function, physical or mental dependency, or cognitive ability.”

The judge also claimed that the potential impact of the initiative is not clearly explained “in a way that an average voter can understand.”

Lee Rowland, an attorney representing the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, described the decision as “A victory not only for the plaintiffs, but more importantly, for the voters.”

Rowland criticized the proposed amendment, which reads, “In the great state of Nevada, the term ‘person’ applies to every human being,” calling the 14 words “so vague that they form the very definition of excessive generality.”

Rowland also argued that changing the definition of person would directly make thousands of changes to the constitution, the effects of which were not made clear in the initiative’s wording.

“Nowhere does [the initiative] mention existing rights that would be taken away,” she said, pointing out that mentions of abortion, pregnancy, birth control and fertilization were noticeably absent from the initiative, despite public statements released by Personhood Nevada that make it clear that they hope the initiative to affect those very things.

Las Vegas lawyer Michael Brooks, representing Personhood Nevada, argued that while his clients do hope to use the Personhood Initiative to abolish abortion, the initiative “isn’t just about abortion–it’s about much bigger issues.”

Brooks’ arguments centered on the idea that in United States law, the term “person” does not necessarily mean “human” and that over the nation’s history, the civil rights of many human beings have been violated as a result. Considering all human beings to be humans, Brooks said, “would have unequivocally eliminated” past civil rights issues such as the Dred Scott decision and Japanese American internment during World War II.

Passing the amendment now, Brooks argued, would prevent such civil rights issues from cropping up in the future.

“We can’t predict the future, but we can anticipate it,” Brooks said, pointing to modern philosophers such as Peter Singer, who argues that killing newborn children is not morally equivalent to killing grown adults.

Rowland considers Brooks’ argument a “red herring,” saying, “Not only the 13th amendment, but the 14th amendment currently protect pretty much everyone that he cited in society, except the fertilized eggs.“

Rowland argued that Brooks’ statements further show why the ballot language needs to be thrown out.

“The elderly, the infirm, people regardless of race, are now covered by the laws,” she said. “To imply that they’re not, and to imply that that’s relevant to this initiative, is simply misleading for the voters.”

After the decision, Dr. Olaf Vancura, the president of Personhood Nevada, criticized the ACLU for trying to “tether down” the initiative to the issue of abortion, comparing the argument with having tobacco companies claiming that abolishing slavery was all about trying to destroy the tobacco industry.

“This is really a higher issue.” Vancura said. “It’s a foundational civil rights issue. […] All of the other civil rights in the bill of rights that we enjoy, they are built on this right, which is the fundamental right to live.”

Dr. Vancura said that Personhood Nevada plans to appeal the decision to the Nevada Supreme court and hopes that the ruling will be overturned quickly, giving Personhood Nevada enough time to gather the required 97,002 signatures needed to put the issue on the 2012 ballot by the May 18 deadline.