Mississippi 'personhood' measure: why support waned as Election Day neared

Reservations by the medical community and even Gov. Haley Barbour ahead of Election Day have made a dent in support for a Mississippi measure that would confer 'personhood' on fertilized eggs.

Support in conservative Mississippi for conferring the legal definition of "personhood" to fertilized eggs dropped dramatically ahead of Tuesday's ballot question, amid growing uncertainty about the impact of Initiative 26.

Polls conducted ahead of Election Day showed the yes and no votes essentially tied, with 11 percent of likely voters still undecided. Those results indicated a drop of nearly 20 percentage points in support for the measure, which is seen by many as a direct challenge to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in the United States.

Probably playing a role in the growing doubts about the measure are concerns raised by popular outgoing Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R), as well as the money and manpower being poured into the state from groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood. Mississippi is the one US state where many say such a measure is most likely to pass, given the state's deep religious and conservative values that cut across racial and economic lines.

But the greatest drag on support for the measure – which asks, "Should the term ‘person’ be defined to include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the equivalent thereof?” – may be misgivings from the state's medical community about potential unintended consequences. This includes that lawyers and judges would be making decisions about women's health.

"I've been going to a lot of political forums and chatting with older, conservative women, who, almost to a person, have said, 'Two or three weeks ago, I was absolutely going to vote for it. I agreed in church to vote for it, but with what I've seen the medical community saying, I've become concerned,' " says Marty Wiseman, a political scientist at Mississippi State University.

Groups like Planned Parenthood and the ACLU say they mobilized activists to travel to Mississippi in order to debate an effort that could represent a new chapter in America's long-running debate over the morality of ending life within the womb.

The main charges from abortion-rights activists have been that the measure is too vague and could be interpreted in ways that could criminalize abortion and even affect in vitro fertilization clinics, which sometimes discard fertilized eggs that are judged by medical professionals not to be viable.

Proponents of the measure call such charges scaremongering and insist that the law will only affect the ability of women to have abortions and the use of post-conception birth control like the so-called day-after pill.

"[National] groups have joined forces to spend millions of dollars to spread misinformation, 'what-ifs,' and scare tactics to keep voters from voting Yes on 26," writes Laurel, Miss., resident Reid Guy in a letter to the Laurel Leader-Call newspaper. "They are saying if we pass this initiative it will ban all birth control and outlaw in vitro fertilization. FALSE!"

Meanwhile, Governor Barbour has hedged his support for the measure by calling it "ambiguous" and acknowledging that he has "some concerns about it."

"As with most issues related to abortion, conservatives believed there would be virtually uncontested passage of the 'personhood' amendment in Mississippi," writes Sid Salter, a well-known freelance columnist. "But as evidenced by Gov. Haley Barbour’s publicly expressed misgivings ... of the personhood amendment, it appears the amendment has had unintended political consequences as well."

Yet the "personhood" idea has been gaining traction nationally, with several bills introduced by Republicans in Congress to extend personhood to fertilized eggs. And activists are working in Alabama, California, Florida, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Ohio, and Wisconsin to introduce ballot measures and state legislation that would do the same.

If the personhood amendment passes in Mississippi, it could quickly introduce abortion into the Republican presidential contests. Some political analysts say that could shift the candidates away from focusing on the economy and jobs as the issue that could deliver them the White House in 2012.

But the faltering support for the measure in Mississippi as Election Day hit could also be indicative of a waning American appetite for a new abortion battleground.

"Lots of people, when this first got started, thought it was another Republican wedge issue," says Mr. Wiseman of Mississippi State. "Well, it turned out to be a wedge issue, but not a Republican one, but one that's a litmus test for the depth of your conservative Protestant Christianity. The pressure is on, whether you're going to talk the talk or walk the walk."

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