Petition launched to outlaw abortion, protect elderly

CARSON CITY — A longtime conservative activist announced today that he is launching a petition drive to overturn the state’s abortion rights law and also prevent government from trying to end the lives of elderly people.

Richard Ziser said his proposed Personhood Constitutional Amendment is intended to ensure that no human being is deprived of “life, liberty or property” from the moment of biological development to the natural end of their lives.

A 1990 voter-approved law puts the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision permitting abortion into Nevada statutes. The law cannot be changed without a vote of Nevadans, according to Legislative Counsel Brenda Erodes. And even if the state law were changed, it wouldn’t override the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling, she said.

Also, members of Congress have repeatedly stated that the health care reform legislation they are considering makes no provision for encouraging any kind of assisted suicide. Nevada has no law allowing assisted suicide that Ziser's petition would affect, and the petition would not override any federal law.

Furthermore, it’s not clear that Ziser can raise enough money to get the proposal on the ballot and then approved by voters.

The personhood petition, if it secures the required number of signatures of registered voters, would appear on the 2010 and 2012 statewide election ballots.

Ziser said he was asked to circulate the petition by several socially conservative and religious groups.

Their fear has been that Congress will pass health care reform legislation that includes reducing medical care to elderly people and assisting them in making end-of-life decisions. Supporters of the health care legislation contend that such language is not in the bill.

Ziser’s Personhood Nevada organization opposes abortion, but that is not the sole thrust of the petition, he said.

“The whole purpose of the petition is the protection of human rights and civil rights for all humans,” he said. “We are talking about the full spectrum of life from the beginning to the end.”

He noted that the petition gets its “life, liberty and property” language out of the Declaration of Independence.

Elisa Maser, president and chief executive officer of Nevada Advocates for Planned Parenthood Affiliates, the lobbying and political arm of Planned Parenthood in Nevada that advocates for reproductive rights, compared the initiative to a similar effort in Colorado in 2008.

That personhood initiative lost by a 3-to-1 margin, she said.

“It puts government, lawyers and the courts in the middle of our personal lives,” Maser said.

She said her group and others are still studying Ziser’s initiative and might challenge it on the grounds that it is too vague.

“That clearly is a critical question at this point,” she said.

Ryan Erwin, a Republican political consultant who specializes in health issues, said it is too early to tell whether Ziser’s initiative will have broader political implications.

“You can look at something initially on paper and know it will have the potential to drive turnout,” Erwin said of hot-button issues.

But it takes more than a wedge issue on paper to drive voters to the polls, he said.

“It has to be qualified. Then it has to pass the legal scrutiny. Once it is qualified, it has to be funded well enough to run an actual campaign,” Erwin said.

As for the personhood initiative, “it is way too early to gauge the validity of it,” he said.

Ziser would not say how much money has been pledged for the petition drive.

In recent years, virtually every petition circulated around the state has been challenged in court. Successful petition drives have needed $1 million.

“The groups say they will raise the funds,” he said, referring to the organizations supporting his cause — the Crisis Pregnancy Center, the Christian Action Council and the American Life League, a national Catholic group that opposes abortion and euthanasia.

“Obviously there are going to be legal costs,” he said.

Ziser said he will have to rely on a lot of volunteers to collect the required signatures.

But without paid petition circulators, petition drives almost always have failed to secure spots on the Nevada election ballot in recent election cycles.

Before the petition can be put on the November 2010 ballot, Parenthood Nevada needs to collect 97,002 valid signatures on its petitions by Aug. 4.

Anyone can file a legal challenge to the petition and its language by Nov. 12 of this year.

Since the petition proposes amending the state constitution, it requires a favorable vote of the people both in the 2010 and 2012 general elections.

Ziser is a former U.S. Senate candidate and the leader of the group that put the Protection of Marriage amendment before voters earlier this decade. Voters approved the amendment that specifies a marriage can be between only one man and one woman. Now it is part of the state’s constitution.

He said he believes that fewer Nevadans support abortion rights today than 20 years ago.

Young people are more anti-abortion and aware that life begins at the moment of conception, he said.

He noted that young adults now often hang sonogram pictures of their children taken in the womb, an indication that they know life begins long before birth.

“I saw one in a real estate office yesterday,” Ziser said.

Contact reporter Ed Vogel at or 775-687-3901. Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at or 702-477-3861.