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US politics live: Eric Holder faces ‘Fast and Furious’ questions in Congress December 8, 2011

1.20pm: Virginia Tech is in lock-down after shots were heard near the campus:

Virginia Tech says a police officer has been shot, and a possible second victim has been reported at a parking lot near the campus.

Authorities are seeking a suspect.

A campus-wide alert tells students and faculty to stay inside and lock doors.

Virginia Tech, as most people will recall, was the site of the tragic shooting of 32 students and staff members by a student on the campus in 2007.

1.15pm: Erick Erickson, the influential conservative Republican and co-founder of RedState, says that the Republican presidential nomination may go to the floor of the Republican National Convention in Tampa next year:

I think it is time to move beyond wishful thinking and take seriously the idea of having a brokered convention with someone other than the current crop of candidates becoming the nominee.

Erickson is not a nut – and this is a sidelight in a longer piece he has written on the state of the GOP race. And my view that there is some wishful thinking going on there. But Erickson isn’t alone among Republicans in saying this.

1.01pm: The morning-after pill decision mentioned earlier has been the subject of considerable controversy, with the American Academy of Pediatrics calling Sebelius’ decision to keep the pill on sale behind pharamcy counters “medically inexplicable”.

AP reports:

Pediatricians say the morning-after pill is safe — containing a high dose of the same female hormone that’s in regular birth control pills — especially compared to some existing over-the-counter medicines.

“I don’t think 11-year-olds go into Rite Aid and buy anything,” much less a single pill that costs about $50, added fellow AAP member Dr Cora Breuner, a professor of pediatric and adolescent medicine at the University of Washington.

With all due respect to Dr Breuner, at my local branch of [national drugstore chain], a bright 11-year-old could probably get a job behind the counter.

12.43pm: At Eric Holder’s hearing, the attorney general says there is a suspect in the killing of US border agent Brian Terry – thought to have been killed by a gun obtained from the botched Fast and Furious operation – but that he can’t speak any further because a court has sealed the matter.

12.36pm: At Obama’s mini press conference, the subject of the “Plan B” morning-after pill came up, and the decision by the Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius to keep the drug behind pharmacy counters rather than on open shelves.

In response to a question, Obama says Sebelius was concerned a 10-year-old could get the medication, which could be dangerous. “Most parents would probably feel the same way,” Obama said.

The morning-after pill will still be available without a prescription to those 17 and older who can prove their age.

12.30pm: Some massive grandstanding going on by Darryl Issa, complete with props – a set of boxes showing the information he has received from a gun-dealer compared with a solitary box showing the information he received from the Justice Department.

I’m not quite sure what his point is but it looks good on television. Well, C-Span 3.

Sample quote from Issa: “When he comes before us saying he will clean house, no house has been cleaned.”

12.22pm: The Christian Science Monitor has an excellent overview of the position Eric Holder finds himself in over Fast and Furious and the chorus of Republicans calling for his resignation.

It also notes this:

While the White House has remained relatively quiet on Fast and Furious, other Democrats have come to Holder’s defense, saying Republican calls for resignation are clearly partisan, in part because they’ve largely ignored a smaller-scale gun-walking program, “Operation Wide Receiver,” implemented during the Bush administration. However, that program, unlike Fast and Furious, was a joint operation with Mexican authorities.

12.10pm: Back to Eric Holder, who is being grilled, baked and roasted by Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee over the failure of Fast and Furious.

Earlier, Republican congressman Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin told Holder:

If we don’t get to the bottom of this – and that requires your assistance on that – there is only one alternative that Congress has, and it’s called impeachment, where our subpoena powers are plenary and there can’t be any type of a legal immunity or privilege that can be asserted on that.

Now, you know, I’ve done more impeachments than anybody else in the history of the country. It is an expensive and messy affair. And I don’t want to go this far.

A rare moment of humour happened shortly after, from veteran Democrat John Conyers: “I merely wanted to clear the record with Jim Sensenbrenner. I’ve had far more impeachment experience than he has.”

12.04pm: And there’s this news: Iran’s state television appears to be showing video of the top secret US RQ-170 Sentinel drone that crash-landed inside Iran last week.

If the video is legitimate, the drone looks like it is intact.

12 noon: Asked about his vow to cut short his holiday until the payroll tax holiday is extended, Obama says he will delay his vacation to Hawaii until Congress acts: “I will not ask anybody to do something I’m not willing to do myself.”

With grim humour he looks at the assembled journalists and says: “Maybe we’ll have a white Christmas here in Washington.” Someone groans softly in the background.

11.56am: Obama is asked about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and what he means when he says he’s looking at all the options:

Obama: All options means I’m not taking any options off the table.

Reporter: Can you tell us what those options might be?

Obama: No.

Obama does go on to say that the US has imposed the toughest level of sanctions against Iran of any administration, and that Iran can either be isolated or “act responsibly”.

11.53am: On the European debt crisis, Obama says “obviously I am very concerned about what’s happening in Europe”. He says that he has repeatedly spoken to European leaders such as Merkel and Sarkozy, and the only question is political will:

It’s not as if we’re talking about some improvished country … this is Europe, with some of the wealthiest countries on earth.

Obama goes on to say:

We’re going to do everything we can to push them in a good direction on this … if we see Europe tank, that obviously could have a big impact on our ability to create jobs.

11.49am: Obama says he is still committed to appointing Richard Cordray as head of the Consumer Finance Protection Board – and won’t rule out a recess appointment (a constitutional device that allows the president to circumvent congressional approval):

Why wouldn’t we want somebody just to make sure people are being treated fairly? Especially when not only is a family affected but our whole economy is affected.

We have Republicans in Congress who appear to have entirely forgotten how we got into this mess.

The bottom line, according to Obama, “is we’re going to look at all our options. My hope is the Republicans come to their senses.”

11.42am: Speaking from the White House briefing room, President Obama says there was no reason for the Senate to block Richard Cordray’s nomination: “This makes absolutely no sense.”

Obama is now taking questions – and the first one is on the accusations by Republican presidential candidates that he has guilty of “appeasement” of Israel’s enemies.

Here’s Obama’s pithy response:

Ask Osama bin Laden and the 22 out of 30 top al-Qaida leaders who have been taken off the field whether I engage in appeasement. Or whoever is left out there, ask them about that.

Hard to argue with that.

11.20am: More Congressional gridlock: the Senate blocks the nomination of Richard Cordray as head of the new consumer watchdog, the Consumer Finance Protection Board. Despite winning the vote 53 to 45 Cordray’s nomination failed to clear the 60 votes required for cloture, in effect filibustering the nomination:

Republicans said they had three demands. One was for a five-member board to oversee the agency. Another was for “safety and soundness” checks of the agency’s decision-making. And they wanted the agency’s funding to be approved by Congress rather than have its budget approved by the Federal Reserve.

President Obama is to speak on the subject shortly.

11.13am: In attempt to derail the Newt Gingrich bandwagon, the Romney campaign sent out two surrogates this morning to attack his record – a sign that the GOP fight is getting more brutal, as the Los Angeles Times reports.

Former Missouri Senator Jim Talent – who served under Gingrich when he was Speaker of the House in the mid-1990s – and a Romney supporter, appeared at a press conference:

The speaker’s running as a reliable and trusted conservative leader. And what we’re here to say, with reluctance, but clearly, is that he’s not a reliable and trusted conservative leader because he’s not a reliable or trustworthy leader.

Former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu laced into Gingrich for his remarks about the Medicare proposals of Republican congressman Paul Ryan earlier this year:

For Newt Gingrich, in an effort of self-aggrandizement, to come out and throw a clever phrase that had no other purpose than to try and make him sound a little smarter than the conservative Republican leadership, to undercut Paul Ryan is the most self-serving, anti-conservative thing one can imagine happening.

That’s reference to Gingrich calling Ryan’s plans “right-wing social engineering”.

Things are heating up nicely.

11.41am: The committee is now going into recess to allow members to vote.

10.40am: Darryl Issa, the Republican chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is next up to take a swing at Holder:

My committee just next door was systemically lied to by your own representatives. There is a high likelihood individual was deliberately duped, but he was duped by people who still work for you today, still work for you today.

The president has said he has full confidence in this attorney general. I have no confidence in a president who has full confidence in an attorney general who has in fact not terminated or dealt with the individuals, including key lieutenants who from the very beginning had some knowledge and long before Brian Terry was gunned down knew enough to stop this programme.

10.37am: Lamar Smith, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is quickly on the attack, telling Eric Holder:

I am disappointed in the department’s repeated refusal to cooperate with this committee’s oversight request.

This lack of cooperation is evident in the department’s handling of inquiries related to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ Operation Fast and Furious and the death of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in December 2010. And inconsistent statements from department officials about who knew what and when have only raised more concerns.

10.32am: Perhaps forlornly, Eric Holder says investigators should avoid soring political pints. That ship has sailed, I’m afraid.

Holder also attempts to address the death of US law enforcement officer Brian Terry – who may have been killed by a gun smuggled as part of the Fast and Furious operation:

Nearly one year ago, working to protect his fellow citizens, US Customs and Border Protection agent Brian Terry was violently murdered in Arizona. We all should feel outrage about his death, and – as I have communicated directly to Agent Terry’s family – we are dedicated to pursuing justice on his behalf.

The Department is also working to answer questions that the Terry family has raised, including whether and how firearms connected to Fast and Furious could end up with Mexican drug cartels.

10.29am: More from Holder – who warns that the guns lost during Fast and Furious will be found for “years to come”:

Although the Department has taken steps to ensure that such tactics are never used again, it is an unfortunate reality that we will continue to feel the effects of this flawed operation for years to come. Guns lost during this operation will continue to show up at crime scenes on both sides of the border.

In other words, Fast and Furious will be a running sore for the administration.

Holder attempts to put the figures into the context of the huge flow of arms from the US to Mexico:

As we work to identify where errors occurred and to ensure that these mistakes never happen again, we must not lose sight of the critical challenge this flawed operation has highlighted: the battle to stop the flow of guns to Mexico. Of the nearly 94,000 guns that have been recovered and traced in Mexico in the last five years, more than 64,000 were sourced to the United States. In the last five years, the trafficking of firearms across our Southwest Border has contributed to approximately 40,000 deaths.

10.20am: Eric Holder is now before the committee – you can follow it live via C-Span 3 – and in his opening remarks describes the failure of Fast and Furious as “inexcusable”.

Holder told the committee that “addressing the unacceptable rate of illegal firearms trafficking from the United States to Mexico” led to the disasterous policy:

Unfortunately, in the pursuit of that laudable goal unacceptable tactics were adopted as a part of Operation Fast and Furious. As I have repeatedly stated, allowing guns to walk – whether in this Administration or in the prior one – is wholly unacceptable. The use of this misguided tactic is inexcusable. And it must never happen again.



Police on the streets of Monterrey, Mexico. Photograph: Tomas Bravo/Reuters

10.11am: By way of background on the influence of US-sourced guns in Mexico’s drug war, the Guardian’s Chris McGreal has just visited Texas and published this investigation:

It’s a war sustained by a merry-go-round. The cartels use the money paid by Americans for drugs to buy weapons at US guns stores, which are then shipped across the frontier, often using the same vehicles and routes used to smuggle more narcotics north. The weapons are used by the cartels to protect narcotics production in their battle with the Mexican police and army, and smuggle drugs north.

Good morning: US Attorney General Eric Holder appears before the House Judiciary Committee to answer questions over the government’s failed operation known as Fast and Furious, a gunning-running sting that led to weapons being passed in the hands of Mexico’s drug cartels.

It’s a complex subject but Republicans in the House of Representatives have been investigating the Justice Department and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and how the Mexican cartels ended up with hundreds of firearms as a result.

Here’s the background:

Two years ago, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives launched a “gun walking” operation that permitted several gun shops in Arizona to sell a total of more than 2,000 semi-automatic weapons destined for drug cartels with the intention of tracking the guns and busting the smuggling operations.

But the agents carrying out Operation Fast and Furious lost track of about 1,400 of the guns – some of which were later identified as being used in killings in Mexico and other attacks, including an incident in which a Mexican military helicopter was shot down. Two of the weapons were also recovered after a gun battle in Arizona last year in which a US border patrol agent, Brian Terry, was killed.

Now Holder appears before the House Judiciary Committee to be grilled once more on who knew what and when.

Elsewhere, the Republican presidential hopefuls are out and about, with more polling evidence of Newt Gingrich surging in the polls – and the Mitt Romney campaign organising a firm response this morning, rolling out some heavyweight surrogates to attack Gingrich’s record and shore up Romney’s base in New Hampshire, site of the first presidential primary on 10 January.

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Mississippi voting on ‘personhood’ November 8, 2011

(CNN) — Mississippi voters are casting ballots Tuesday on an amendment to the state constitution that would define life as beginning at the moment of conception.

Initiative 26 would define personhood as “every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.”

Though the text of the amendment is simple, the implications if it passes couldn’t be more complex. If approved by voters, it would make it impossible to get an abortion in the state and hamper the ability to get some forms of birth control.

Because the amendment would define a fertilized egg as a person with full legal rights, it could have an impact on a woman’s ability to get the morning-after pill or birth control pills that destroy fertilized eggs.

It could make in vitro fertilization treatments more difficult because it could become illegal to dispose of unused fertilized eggs. This could lead to a nationwide debate about women’s rights and abortion while setting up a possible challenge to the landmark Roe v. Wade case, which makes abortion legal.

The ballot initiative is part of a national campaign brought by Personhood USA. The Colorado-based group describes itself as a nonprofit Christian ministry that “serves the pro-life community by assisting local groups to initiate citizen, legislative, and political action focusing on the ultimate goal of the pro-life movement: personhood rights for all innocent humans.”

The idea for personhood was born during Roe v. Wade’s oral arguments, when Justice Potter Stewart said, “If it were established that an unborn fetus is a person, you would have an impossible case here.” Now, Personhood USA is trying to use the amendment to establish “personhood” as a direct challenge to the Roe v. Wade ruling.

The initiative has been gaining support across many demographics, according to polls in the state suggesting that it will probably pass.

The Mississippi State Medical Association and Doctors Against MS 26 are voicing concern about implications for the health care of women as well as their ability to practice medicine.

Clergy and church officials in the heavily religious state are split on the issue. Some anti-abortion religious groups say they think this step may be so extreme, it could lead to a Supreme Court ruling that actually strengthens Roe v. Wade.

The Democratic and Republican candidates for governor have both said they are behind the amendment, and Attorney General Jim Hood, a Democrat, has said he would enforce the measure if it passed.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour offered his support despite some reservations.

“I have some concerns about it,” he said in a statement issued Friday, a day after casting an absentee ballot. “But I think, all in all, I believe life begins at conception, so I think the right thing to do was to vote for it.”

On Wednesday, Barbour, a Republican, had said he was still undecided and that the measure was “too ambiguous.” A group opposed to the measure was calling Mississippi voters and telling them he is opposed to it.

“These misleading calls were made without my knowledge, without my permission and against my wishes,” Barbour’s statement said. “I have demanded that this deception be stopped, and those responsible have assured me that no more calls will be made.”

The governor’s office identified the group as Mississippians for Healthy Families.

A statement from the group said the calls used “the exact words of Gov. Haley Barbour about the ‘unintended consequences’ caused by this dangerous initiative,” noting that the concerns expressed earlier in the week by the governor “echo those of doctors, nurses, clergy, parents and many pro-life Mississippians who are opposed to Initiative 26.”

Jonathan F. Will, director of the Bioethics and Health Law Center at the Mississippi College of Law, said he, too, is concerned that people may not be able to understand the complexity of the amendment.

“My first thought, literally, was people aren’t going to understand what this means … what implications it has beyond abortions,” he said.

What the amendment means, and whether it is either the most sensible measure or the most extreme and dangerous one, depends on whom you talk to in Mississippi.

Terri Herring, the national director for the Pro-Life America network and an advisory board member for Yes on 26, said the goal of the amendment is to give people the chance to say there is a better way than abortion. She also said the vote is a way to change the national conversation and push to give more rights to the unborn.

“In Mississippi, we have the opportunity to lead the way on a social justice issue,” Herring said. “We may have been behind on civil rights, but we can be ahead on human rights, and that’s what personhood is really all about.”

But those opposed to the measure say that voting yes would be a huge mistake.

Cristen Hemmins, a mother from Oxford, has been speaking out against Initiative 26 because of what it could mean for her, her daughters and the ability of families to make the choices they want with their doctors.

“Whether or not you believe life begins at conception, this amendment goes too far,” she said. “It is too ambiguous. It seems so obvious to me that it is far-reaching and it is going to be big government getting all up in my uterus.”

Hemmins believes that passing the amendment would give the state too much control over women’s reproductive rights.

Herring, on the other hand, thinks the amendment would be a way for Mississippi to be the first to support the rights of an unborn fetus while correcting contradictions in the state’s constitution.

“If a woman was attacked and her unborn child was killed, it would be fetal homicide. That is considered a person,” she said. “But on that very same day in the same area, a woman could go and have an abortion and kill her child, and nothing would happen. So we have a contradiction, and that is what we’re trying to fix here.”

But Hemmins believes that passing the amendment would be a “blight” on Mississippi, not a shining moment, and she cautions those who think this is just a local issue.

Mississippi is the only state voting on a “personhood” initiative this year, but similar measures have gone on the ballot in other states and were defeated by wide margins. Other personhood measures are being planned for next year in Florida, Montana and Ohio, according to supporters. Efforts in at least five other states are in the planning stages.

“Apparently, they thought they needed to find a place more religious and more conservative, so they headed down here,” Hemmins said. “But this is big government going too far in the poorest state in the country, with the highest teen pregnancy rate, the highest STD rate — let’s focus on fixing those things.”

But many of those who support Initiative 26 say that defining life as the moment an egg is fertilized will allow women to really think about the decision of raising a child and open the door for a more successful adoption policy.

“We’re trying to say there is another way besides abortion, that there can be a home for every child,” Herring said. “Not every unwanted child has to die. There are over a million couples waiting to adopt. It’s time to stop the senseless killing of children. We can provide these children, if people don’t want them, to all of those who cannot have children themselves and stop the rush of people going to Russia, China and other areas to get children.”

Hemmins and others who work with No on 26 say the measure brings up more questions than answers, such as: What does it mean for women’s reproductive rights? What does it mean about the decisions a woman can make with her doctor? Will it mean women will be at the mercy of the state when it comes to everything from taking certain birth control pills to trying to conceive if a couple is infertile?

But those in support of this measure say those questions are scare tactics used to sway votes.

“(They should) stop the fear-mongering and the tactics that are just talking about outrageous things that we do not believe will happen,” Herring said. “This is really about saying, ‘What did our forefathers intend when they used the word “person”?’ I think very clearly, there is no way that long ago they had any intention of not including the unborn as a person. So in my mind, this is a historic vote, and it provides the people to have a voice in protecting life.”

The vote is a way to start the conversation, Herring said, and laws that would help govern the definition change would come later.

“What legislation falls under that is yet to be determined,” she said.

That is exactly the problem, according to opponents.

“Talking about the (implications) is just being smart; it’s not fear-mongering,” Hemmins said. “You don’t pass an amendment like this and not think about what it might mean. That is just reckless.”

Will, as a legal expert, said that if the amendment were to pass, it will probably face several legal challenges, but it also opens the doors for interpretation by local officials.

“The concern is that you could have local prosecutors that as soon as this amendment goes into place would say ‘OK, well clearly this is the policy the people of this state want, so now I’m going to use our code to investigate miscarriages'” and in vitro fertilization, Will said.

An area of particular concern for opponents is that it doesn’t provide exception for victims of rape or incest who wish to terminate their pregnancy. Many states have varying bans on abortions but allow exceptions for such circumstances.

Hemmins, who was abducted, raped and shot twice by two men while she was in college, said it is “terrible” to not allow for any exceptions.

“I did not get pregnant, thank goodness, but if I had and Initiative 26 had been in place, I would have had no options,” she said. “I would have been forced to have had this child by the government. I think it’s a travesty in the United States of America that a state could force a woman against her will to bear a child.”

Those supporting the amendment note that only a small fraction of people have to deal with that issue. A 2005 study by the Guttmacher Institute of New York shows that only 1% of women who had had an abortion said they had been raped. The study also showed that fewer than 0.5% became pregnant because of incest.

Herring said she has spoken to several rape victims who have been more haunted by their decision to abort their babies than by the rapes themselves. The Yes on 26 group even has videos posted of women speaking at local forums, discussing that exact issue.

One thing supporters and opponents of the amendment agree on is that this vote has the potential to change the entire debate about women’s rights and abortion nationwide.

CNN’s Vivian Kuo contributed to this report.


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Mississippi to vote on abortion measure November 5, 2011

(CNN) — Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour offered his support Friday for an amendment to the state constitution that would define life as beginning at the moment of conception, saying he cast his absentee ballot for the measure despite struggling with its implications.

“I have some concerns about it,” he said in a statement issued Friday, a day after casting his ballot. “But I think all in all, I believe life begins at conception, so I think the right thing to do was to vote for it.”

On Wednesday, Barbour, a Republican, said that he was still undecided and that the measure was “too ambiguous.”

Initiative 26 would define personhood as “every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.”

Though the text of the amendment is simple, the implications if it passes couldn’t be more complex. If approved by Mississippi voters on Tuesday, it would make it impossible to get an abortion and hamper the ability to get some forms of birth control.

Gallery: Birth control methods

Gov. Barbour: Life begins at conception

‘Personhood’ vote to define humans

Because the amendment would define a fertilized egg as a person with full legal rights, it could have an impact on a woman’s ability to get the morning-after pill or birth control pills that destroy fertilized eggs, and it could make in vitro fertilization treatments more difficult because it could become illegal to dispose of unused fertilized eggs. This could lead to a nationwide debate about women’s rights and abortion while setting up a possible challenge to the landmark Roe v. Wade case, which makes abortion legal.

The ballot initiative is part of a national campaign brought by Personhood USA. The Colorado-based group describes itself as a nonprofit Christian ministry that “serves the pro-life community by assisting local groups to initiate citizen, legislative, and political action focusing on the ultimate goal of the pro-life movement: personhood rights for all innocent humans.”

Mississippi voters can decide ‘personhood’ of the unborn, court rules

The idea for personhood was born during Roe v. Wade’s oral arguments, when Justice Potter Stewart said, “If it were established that an unborn fetus is a person, you would have an impossible case here.” Now, Personhood USA is trying to use the amendment to establish “personhood” as a direct challenge to the Roe v. Wade ruling.

The initiative has been gaining support across many demographics, according to polls suggesting that it will probably pass.

The Mississippi State Medical Association and Doctors Against MS 26 are voicing concern about implications for the health care of women as well as their ability to practice medicine.

Clergy and church officials in the heavily religious state are split on the issue. Some anti-abortion religious groups say they think this step may be so extreme, it could lead to a Supreme Court ruling that actually strengthens Roe v. Wade.

The Democratic and Republican candidates for governor have both said they are behind the amendment, and Attorney General Jim Hood, a Democrat, has said he would enforce the measure if it passed.

While Barbour said he still has concerns, he said in a statement Friday that a group opposed to the measure is calling Mississippi voters and telling them he is opposed to it.

“These misleading calls were made without my knowledge, without my permission and against my wishes,” Barbour’s statement said. “I have demanded that this deception be stopped, and those responsible have assured me that no more calls will be made.”

The governor’s office identified the group as Mississippians for Healthy Families.

A statement from the group said the calls used “the exact words of Gov. Haley Barbour about the ‘unintended consequences’ caused by this dangerous initiative,” noting that the concerns expressed earlier in the week by the governor “echo those of doctors, nurses, clergy, parents and many pro-life Mississippians who are opposed to Initiative 26.”

Jonathan F. Will, director of the Bioethics and Health Law Center at the Mississippi College of Law, said he, too, is concerned that people may not be able to understand the complexity of the amendment.

“My first thought, literally, was people aren’t going to understand what this means … what implications it has beyond abortions,” he said.

Differing voices

What the amendment means, and whether it is either the most sensible measure or the most extreme and dangerous one, depends on whom you talk to in Mississippi.

Terri Herring, the national director for the Pro-Life America network and an advisory board member for Yes on 26, said the goal of the amendment is to give people the chance to say there is a better way than abortion. She also said the vote is a way to change the national conversation and push to give more rights to the unborn.

“In Mississippi, we have the opportunity to lead the way on a social justice issue,” Herring said. “We may have been behind on civil rights, but we can be ahead on human rights, and that’s what personhood is really all about.”

But those opposed to the measure say that voting yes would be a huge mistake.

Cristen Hemmins, a mother from Oxford, has been speaking out against Initiative 26 because of what it could mean for her, her daughters and the ability of families to make the choices they want with their doctors.

“Whether or not you believe life begins at conception, this amendment goes too far,” she said. “It is too ambiguous. It seems so obvious to me that it is far-reaching and it is going to be big government getting all up in my uterus.”

Hemmins believes that passing the amendment would give the state too much control over women’s reproductive rights.

Herring, on the other hand, thinks the amendment would be a way for Mississippi to be the first to support the rights of an unborn fetus while correcting contradictions in the state’s constitution.

“If a woman was attacked and her unborn child was killed, it would be fetal homicide. That is considered a person,” she said. “But on that very same day in the same area, a woman could go and have an abortion and kill her child, and nothing would happen. So we have a contradiction, and that is what we’re trying to fix here.”

But Hemmins believes that passing the amendment would be a “blight” on Mississippi, not a shining moment, and she cautions those who think this is just a local issue.

Mississippi is the only state voting on a “personhood” initiative this year, but similar measures have gone on the ballot in other states and were defeated by wide margins. Other personhood measures are being planned for next year in Florida, Montana and Ohio, according to supporters. Efforts in at least five other states are in the planning stages.

“Apparently, they thought they needed to find a place more religious and more conservative, so they headed down here,” Hemmins said. “But this is big government going too far in the poorest state in the country, with the highest teen pregnancy rate, the highest STD rate — let’s focus on fixing those things.”

But many of those who support Initiative 26 say that defining life as the moment an egg is fertilized will allow women to really think about the decision of raising a child and open the door for a more successful adoption policy.

“We’re trying to say there is another way besides abortion, that there can be a home for every child,” Herring said. “Not every unwanted child has to die. There are over a million couples waiting to adopt. It’s time to stop the senseless killing of children. We can provide these children, if people don’t want them, to all of those who cannot have children themselves and stop the rush of people going to Russia, China and other areas to get children.”

What would the measure mean?

Hemmins and others who work with No on 26 say the measure brings up more questions than answers, such as: What does it mean for women’s reproductive rights? What does it mean about the decisions a woman can make with her doctor? Will it mean women will be at the mercy of the state when it comes to everything from taking certain birth control pills to trying to conceive if a couple is infertile?

But those in support of this measure say those questions are scare tactics used to sway votes.

“(They should) stop the fear-mongering and the tactics that are just talking about outrageous things that we do not believe will happen,” Herring said. “This is really about saying, ‘What did our forefathers intend when they used the word “person”?’ I think very clearly, there is no way that long ago they had any intention of not including the unborn as a person. So in my mind, this is a historic vote, and it provides the people to have a voice in protecting life.”

The vote is a way to start the conversation, Herring said, and laws that would help govern the definition change would come later.

“What legislation falls under that is yet to be determined,” she said.

That is exactly the problem, according to opponents.

“Talking about the (implications) is just being smart; it’s not fear-mongering,” Hemmins said. “You don’t pass an amendment like this and not think about what it might mean. That is just reckless.”

Will, as a legal expert, said that if the amendment were to pass, it will probably face several legal challenges, but it also opens the doors for interpretation by local officials.

“The concern is that you could have local prosecutors that as soon as this amendment goes into place would say ‘OK, well clearly this is the policy the people of this state want, so now I’m going to use our code to investigate miscarriages and IVF,’ ” Will said.

An area of particular concern for opponents is that it doesn’t provide exception for victims of rape or incest who wish to terminate their pregnancy. Many states have varying bans on abortions but allow exceptions for such circumstances.

Hemmins, who was abducted, raped and shot twice by two men while she was in college, said it is “terrible” to not allow for any exceptions.

“I did not get pregnant, thank goodness, but if I had and Initiative 26 had been in place, I would have had no options,” she said. “I would have been forced to have had this child by the government. I think it’s a travesty in the United States of America that a state could force a woman against her will to bear a child.”

Those supporting the amendment note that only a small fraction of people have to deal with that issue. A 2005 study by the Guttmacher Institute of New York shows that only 1% of women who had had an abortion said they had been raped. The study also showed that fewer than 0.5% became pregnant because of incest.

Herring said she has spoken to several rape victims who have been more haunted by their decision to abort their babies than by the rapes themselves. The Yes on 26 group even has videos posted of women speaking at local forums, discussing that exact issue.

One thing supporters and opponents of the amendment agree on is that this vote has the potential to change the entire debate about women’s rights and abortion nationwide.

CNN’s Vivian Kuo


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