Abortion referendum in Mississippi would redefine 'personhood'

A ballot measure expected to pass in Mississippi this week would define 'personhood' as beginning at the moment of fertilization or cloning. Abortion rights groups are fighting the measure, which could end up in the US Supreme Court.

Barbara Gauntt/The Clarion-Ledger/AP
Parents against the Mississippi Initiative 26 attend a rally at the State Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Oct. 27. Mississippi doctors against Initiative 26, also known as the Personhood Initiative, gathered at the Capitol to state reasons for their opposition. The doctor's group is supported by the Mississippi Nurses Association which voted at their state convention to oppose the initiative.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

Abortion rights in Mississippi are being tested with a referendum on the ballot Tuesday asking voters to amend the state constitution to redefine the term “person” to include “every human being from the moment of fertilization” or cloning.

Opponents charge that the change – which both sides say is likely to pass – is a backdoor way to outlaw abortion that could put the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision in jeopardy. Redefining “personhood” under Mississippi's Bill of Rights will likely lead to court battles that may end up before the US Supreme Court.

The strategy is being used in several states this year, according to Personhood USA, an Arvada, Colo., organization that provides assistance to state efforts. Besides Mississippi, petitions to put a personhood amendment on the 2012 ballot have been filed in Ohio, Nevada, and California, and there is petition activity in every other state as well.

“Passing these laws in the state and building the base is the very thing that will give credibility and traction to the federal efforts … we’re essentially building political capital. Pass or fail on the ballot, we are churning up, literally, a movement,” Keith Mason, president of Personhood USA, told Bloomberg News.

So far, the ballot initiative made it past the Mississippi Supreme Court, which in September dismissed a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, Planned Parenthood, and the Center for Reproductive Rights by saying the court could not rule on the constitutionality of the initiative before an actual vote was established.

However, opponents say they are less worried about the constitutional implications of the measure than they are about what it could mean if it became law. They say the broad language could make abortions or certain birth control methods illegal and that contraceptive pills may potentially be outlawed.

The state’s medical community also says it is under threat. They say certain surgeries performed after pregnancy complications will be outlawed because they would put the unborn at risk. The Mississippi State Medical Association, for example, is warning that doctors could be charged with murder or wrongful death for “employing techniques physicians have used for years.”

Also at risk is in vitro fertilization, because it involves the freezing of leftover embryos. The American Society of Reproductive Medicine states that the measure will “thwart the ability for those who suffer from infertility to seek treatment appropriate to their disease.”

Groups supporting the amendment say Planned Parenthood and the ACLU are engaging in what they call “scare tactics.” One group, Yes on 26, says opposition groups “have a major financial and ideological interest in abortion remaining legal in the state of Mississippi.”

They insist that the amendment will not ban hormonal contraceptives or ban in vitro fertilization. Instead, they say, the amendment will outlaw destroying unused embryos. They acknowledge that the personhood movement’s overall goal is stopping abortions, even in the case of rape or incest.

Even if voters give the amendment a green light, it will likely face a more difficult time in federal court, where several cases preceding it suggests the fight may be an uphill battle. Similar but less restrictive measures than the one in Mississippi were struck down in federal court in the past, including two in Louisiana and Utah from 1991 that included exceptions for rape and incest.

Most Mississippi state lawmakers support the amendment, as does Gov. Haley Barbour (R), who told the Associated Press he voted for it by absentee ballot because he will not be home Tuesday.

Comments Governor Barbour made last week that suggested he had concerns about the personhood movement were used in robo-calls sent by Mississippians For Healthy Families, an opposition group.

In an appearance on MSNBC, Barbour said he believes “life begins at conception.”

“Unfortunately, this personhood amendment doesn’t say that,” he said. “It says ‘life begins at fertilization or cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.’ That ambiguity is striking a lot of pro-life people here as concerning.”

On Friday, Barbour asked the organization to stop using his comments to suggest he was voting against the amendment, a tactic he described as deceptive. 

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