- Anthony Lane
- Human life amendment leader Kristi Burton (center) has the support of her parents, Debra and Michael.
On this chilly morning, the shrill side of the abortion debate is on display along Cascade Avenue, where a small crowd of protesters has gathered beside carnage-festooned trucks.
Glistening pictures of aborted fetuses do not prompt what most people would call elevated discussion.
"Motherfuckers!" a woman yells from a passing minivan.
Across town, Kristi Burton sits beside her parents at a bagel shop. She explains that the ballot measure she wants to put before Colorado voters next year could show that a more high-minded discourse about abortion is possible.
"We want to have a rational, common-sense discussion about, "Is this a life?'" says Burton, the 20-year-old co-sponsor of an amendment to recognize fertilized eggs as people under Colorado's constitution.
Burton says answering this question does not require her to show graphic pictures or to use confrontational tactics.
"We can just present the facts in a positive way, that this is a person, and all people deserve equal rights," she says, leaning forward with an electric sort of earnestness. "I like to take a positive approach."
This approach will be gaining attention in coming months, as Burton and her supporters seek to place what they call the "human life amendment" on November 2008 ballots.
Critics say the eggs-as-people measure, which in a scant 68 words makes no mention of abortion, could prompt a constitutional showdown and allow a conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court to recast the Roe v. Wade decision, which has kept states from forbidding abortion for nearly 35 years. They add that it could muddy the legal waters for in vitro fertilization, stem-cell research and even some forms of contraception.
Setting the stage
Burton seems well aware of what's at stake, but she dismisses concerns about unintended consequences. Women with fertilization troubles need not fear that in vitro fertilization will be threatened, she says. Other concerns, even that abortion would be outlawed, depend on the laws that are passed following a change to the state constitution, she explains.
And those are all worries for later. For now, Burton seems intent on seeing that supporters get the 76,000 signatures needed to put the amendment on the ballot, and then that it gets approved.
Asked if she thinks the amendment will pass, Burton smiles and nods vigorously. Her eyes, lined with mascara, widen before she utters an enthusiastic "Yes." She says 40 percent of Coloradans are opposed to abortion, and an equal percentage believe it should be protected.
Burton seems to think the remaining 20 percent will come to see things her way when they are asked if a fertilized egg is a person.
"Yeah, it's a person," she answers for them. "What else could it be?"
The Burton family lives in Peyton, where Kristi is the oldest of three home-schooled children.
"It's the perfect fit," Michael Burton says of co-sponsoring the amendment with his daughter. "We just love being with our kids."
Michael and Debra Burton emphasize that their children have always been active outside the home in sports, community events and church activities. When Kristi was still in high school, she participated in speech competitions, winning regionally for a speech opposing abortion.
Burton finished high school classes when she was 15, and then moved on to college-level material, receiving credit through the College-Level Examination Program. At 17, she enrolled at Oak Brook College of Law & Government Policy, a correspondence law school based in California that prepares students to take the bar exam in that state.
Burton actually does not plan to practice criminal law. She says she wants a legal education to help her take part in the abortion debate and other policy matters.
Oak Brook is overtly religious, with a statement of faith appearing prominently on its Web site. Before enrolling, students must take a "basic life principles" seminar from the institute headed by Bill Gothard, a conservative Christian leader and Oak Brook board member who instructs students to live by seven biblical principles. (If the name sounds familiar, it may be because Matthew Murray, the killer in last weekend's New Life Church shootings, railed against Gothard and his teachings in some online posts.)
A darker side
Booking time to speak to Kristi Burton is not a simple thing. She rushes between speaking engagements, efforts to raise money for the amendment and her studies.
While she seems excited by her role, it does bring challenges. People regularly write threatening things to her; one even suggested a wish that she had been aborted.
"It's to the point where we're seriously thinking about having bodyguards," Debra Burton says. "That's what people don't understand it is so volatile behind closed doors."
Kristi Burton does not seem deterred. She speaks confidently about her cause, at times fidgeting with a pendant given her by her boyfriend, also an Oak Brook student.
"I think we're all called to different things," she says. "And I just feel that my calling is to help the unborn."