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Mississippi rejects ‘personhood’ measure November 9, 2011

Jackson, Mississippi (CNN) — Mississippi voters rejected an amendment to the state constitution that would have defined life as starting at conception, and outlawed abortion and many forms of birth control if passed.

“I think voters rejected a measure they understood to be dangerous,” said Felicia Brown-Williams with the Mississippi for Healthy Families Campaign. “They really tried to manipulate values around faith and family.”

If the amendment 26, or “Personhood,” had passed Tuesday, it would have re-opened the national debate on abortion. Court challenges would have set the measure on a path for the U.S. Supreme Court and a showdown in the far right’s mission to overturn Roe V. Wade.

“We are not conceding because we did our duty,” said Les Riley, a Mississippi citizen and a petitioner of amendment 26. “We have obeyed God … it is not tolerable that they kill children.”

Gov. Barbour: Life begins at conception

Critics say the amendment was a restrictive attempt to outlaw abortion — even in the case of mothers who are the victims of rape and incest.

It also bans certain forms of contraception that work after a woman’s egg is fertilized and questions treatments such as in vitro fertilization because eggs would be considered people and are sometimes destroyed in laboratories.

“Even in a conservative state, tonight’s vote reaffirms that people do not want government intruding in personal decisions best made by a woman, her family and her doctor,” said Jennifer Dalven, director of the American Civil Liberties Union reproductive freedom project.

Opponents criticized the amendment as too vague. If it passed, it would have compelled the state legislature to write rules and laws to govern it.

“I think voters understood they could not support something that was so broad, sweeping and yes so unclear,” said Atlee Breland of Parents Against Amendment 26. “Nobody wants to trust the government to work it out at a later date.”

Mississippi’s Gov. Haley Barbour questioned the amendment, but eventually supported it.

“If they had come to the Mississippi legislature and said, ‘look, we want to change the constitution and say life begins at conception our legislature would have passed that,” he said on CNN’s John King USA.

“We’d all be better off if this had gone through the legislative process instead of trying to change the bill of rights of the Mississippi constitution by the initiative. You would have had hearings, people would have understood it, you would have gone through the conference committee and you would have ironed out a lot of these wrinkles.”

The ballot initiative was 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.”

Despite the loss, the group said it has made steps in its fight.

“We accomplished our mission to be a voice for the voiceless who have no one else speaking for them,” said Keith Mason of Personhood USA. “I want to make a commitment that we will stand with Mississippi until all humans are treated as persons.”

A similar amendment was defeated in Colorado last year. Other personhood measures are planned in Florida, Montana and Ohio next year, according to supporters.

Clergy and church officials in Mississippi were split on the issue. Some anti-abortion religious groups believed the amendment was so extreme, it could lead to a Supreme Court ruling that strengthens Roe v. Wade.

The idea for personhood started 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.”

Personhood USA uses the amendments in an attempt to maneuver a direct challenge to the Roe v. Wade ruling. “We will establish a culture of life,” said Dr. Freda Bush, a Yes on 26 spokeswoman. “This is a cultural war from the womb to the tomb and we will be back.”


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Mississippi voting on ‘personhood’ amendment


November 8, 2011

by walden9

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Mississippi voting on ‘personhood’ amendment 08 Nov 2011 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.”

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Mississippi’s ‘Personhood Amendment’ fails at polls


November 9, 2011

by legitgov

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Mississippi’s ‘Personhood Amendment’ fails at polls 08 Nov 2011 Mississippi voters Tuesday defeated a ballot initiative that would’ve declared life begins at fertilization, a proposal that supporters sought in the Bible Belt state as a way to prompt a legal challenge to abortion rights nationwide. The so-called “personhood” initiative was rejected by more than 55 percent of voters, falling far short of the threshold needed for it to be enacted.

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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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The ‘personhood’ amendment and misogyny in Mississippi | Ashley Sayeau

Growing up, my half-sister and I lived apart – I, with my mother in Chicago; she, with our father in Memphis. There is a highway connecting the cities that I have ridden countless times. It looks innocuous enough, draped mostly in corn, but I always knew it divided two worlds.

For instance, when my sister graduated from high school, the place of valedictorian was shared between the two females with the highest grade point average and the top two males. The school – a private, Christian school – had taken a picture to commemorate this. My sister was one of those honored, but when she showed me the picture, she was the only girl in it. When I asked why, she laughed, and said the other girl was pregnant and wasn’t allowed in it.

Women are disappearing a lot lately, as their needs are being degraded by conservatives who view such necessities as not the necessities of “good girls”. Several states have voted recently to eliminate or defund Planned Parenthood, which provides birth control and comprehensive sex-education to women, something that would have empowered my sister’s fellow student. Most likely, any “sex-education” she received promoted marriage and abstinence-only. Clearly, those lessons didn’t cut it.

Women’s advocates are sadly accustomed to these attacks, although a new amendment, which is being decided by Mississippi voters Tuesday, breaks new ground in the sidelining of women and their needs. If passed, Initiative 26, or the so-called “personhood amendment”, would deem any fertilised egg “a person” with full legal rights. This would outlaw not only abortion, but birth control, the morning after pill and, irony of all ironies, IVF. But, more tellingly, it could prohibit a doctor from saving a woman’s life if that meant causing the destruction of a fertilised egg inside her. In the law’s eyes, the woman on the operating table would not matter. She would be disappeared.

This simply does not happen in a country that values women. It’s hardly surprising that Mississippi ranks 49th in women’s medium annual earnings and in the percentage of women with four or more years of college. More women live in poverty in the state than anywhere in America. Inequality is like cancer – when untreated, it spreads.

Conservatives are very adept, however, at cloaking discrimination in good manners, in talk of love, God and tradition. They did that to African Americans during Jim Crow, and now they are doing it to women. They want you to believe that with this initiative, they are protecting the most vulnerable among us by defending a good, moral way of life. But if that’s what this is really about, I suggest we put an initiative on the next ballot that forces parents to pony up a lung if their child needs a transplant or, at the very least, requires them to stop smoking around their children. Something tells me this wouldn’t pass muster with most Tea Party supporters.

The truth is, this isn’t about children. One third of Mississippi’s children live in poverty. No one seems to care what happens to children once they leave the womb. Instead, this is about choking women off at arguably the most important moment in their lives – the moment they decide to become mothers. After all, I can think of no other single decision that has such a dramatic impact on a woman’s economic and social standing. The wage gap between working mothers and working women without children is greater than the wage gap between men and women.

The “personhood amendment’s” message is that “good girls” do not have a sexual life free from reproduction – if women want that, they must be prepared to sacrifice an education, a good career, and their peace of mind. If they choose themselves over a child – under any circumstances – they are increasingly labeled shameless, selfish, or even criminal. If this law is passed, a woman who miscarries could have to undergo a criminal investigation to ensure the miscarriage was not her fault. Someone needs to tell Republicans, that’s not love under anyone’s definition.

My hope is that with Proposition 26, conservatives have gone too far – after all, 82% of women have used the pill – but then again, even the Democratic candidate for governor of Mississippi supports the measure, which is expected to pass. And similar initiatives are in the works in Florida, Montana, Ohio, and five other states. It’s probably best not to assume we’re safe.

Instead, it’s time to push back more forcefully. Battered by the right and strapped financially, women’s groups have done an admirable job this past decade. But we need to be blunt. We must remind Americans what it was like for their mothers and grandmothers before abortion and contraception were made legal. And we need to let the country know that we don’t want the same things for ourselves. We don’t want to hide. Or fly to Puerto Rico. Or disappear in some dank room with some fake doctor. And we don’t want these things for our daughters, either.

We should also not be afraid to put a positive spin on abortion. With its existence under constant attack, it is easy to defend it mostly in those worst-case scenarios of rape, incest, or risk to the life of the mother. But access to safe abortions – particularly when contraception is not easily had, as is increasingly the case – has brought relief and opportunities to millions of women in dire situations. This fact doesn’t have to be treated lightly to be properly appreciated. What would be wrong with an ad in which women looked into the camera and told us why they were grateful for their abortions or their birth control pills, for that matter? “Without these things, I may not have gone to college …”, “Or finished high school …”, “Or left an abusive household …”

Finally, we should explain what these rightwing attacks are really about – taking away women’s right to make decisions about their lives. No one’s going after condoms, after all. It’s only when women are in the driver’s seat that conservatives get uneasy.

No doubt, some of these messages would be dismissed as liberal nonsense, but some would seep through. Occupy Wall Street has been criticised ad nauseam for not having a clearly defined message, but they have made big gains all the same – their support has surged from 27% of the population to 36% in just one month. The movement has done this by evoking a “common sense” politics. It may be difficult for the average person to site a specific corporate loophole or a law that needs changing, but most people can still smell a rat. They know inequality when they see it.

Despite the distracting words of conservatives – fertilisation, zygote, cloning! – what’s happening in Mississippi is discrimination pure and simple. I’m hoping voters there can recognise this, or at least remember that, for now, they still vote behind a curtain. Interestingly, of any region in America the South has the highest number of Tea Party supporters, but it also has the highest number of Occupy Wall Street supporters – 34%. Let’s pray they are out in full force Tuesday.

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Mississippi voters evenly split over controversial abortion ballot

Voters in Mississippi are evenly split over a ballot measure which would introduce the toughest anti-abortion restrictions in America by giving all fertilised embryoes the same rights of people.

The “personhood amendment”, if passed on Tuesday, would redefine the term “person” to begin at the point of conception, which would outlaw abortion at a stroke, as well as restrict infertility treatment that results in the loss of embryos and some forms of birth control.

With less than 24 hours to go until the vote, the latest poll suggests that the measure has a chance of passing. According to Public Policy Polling, 45% of respondents support the amendment, while 44% are against. There may be some hope for the no campaign, however, as the many of the 11% of undecided voters are from the groups who tend to oppose the measure, women, Democrats and black people.

The Colorado-based group behind the personhood movement has failed in previous attempts to have voters ban the destruction of fertilised eggs, but this time they picked one of the most religious and pro-life states in the union.

Personhood USA say a victory in Mississippi could “change the abortion debate” as part of a larger, global movement to redefine when life begins as a way of undermining the case for legal abortion. In the US, pro-lifers want to overthrow Roe v Wade, the landmark supreme court ruling that set out the right to abortion, 38 years ago.

The amendment has produced the most closely fought of any of the votes taking place in states across the US on Tuesday.

Just one paragraph long, it asks voters: “Should the term ‘person’ be defined to include every human being from the moment of fertilisation, cloning, or the equivalent thereof?”

It was drawn up by Les Riley, an ultraconservative Mississippi anti-abortion activist who first tried to get it on the ballot in 2007. In 2009, he started the state’s personhood group and began collecting signatures to get it on the ballot.

Before forming the group, Riley was briefly a blogger for a secession movement in South Carolina called Christian Exodus, the website Mother Jones reported in September. The goal of the movement was to form “an independent Christian nation that will survive after the decline and fall of the financially and morally bankrupt American empire”.

The amendment has received backing from politicians from Republican and Democrat politicians, including both candidates for governor. Other supporters include the Southern Baptist Convention, the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board and the right-wing Christian group, the American Family Association.

Those against the measure, including the Mississippi State Medical Board, the National Infertility Association and the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, say it has a series of “unintended consequences”, which could seriously harm the medical care of women, effectively ban IVF and could criminalise doctors involved in routine medical care, in cases where saving a mother’s life ended a pregnancy.

Increasingly bitter arguments have played out in the state’s media as polling day draws near. Yes on 26 insists the choice is simple – if someone believes life begins at conception, they should vote yes. They have accused those who have voiced concerns over IVF availability – such as the American Civil Liberties Union – of “scare tactics”.

Dr Randall Hines, an IVF doctor, said: “There’s not anybody on either side that knows what’s going to happen. Our biggest concern is that we are going to allow state authority in decisions about all sorts of medical treatment that are not appropriate, such as contraception, assisted reproduction and ectopic pregnancy treatment.”

Some pro-lifers argue that drugs such as methotrixate should not be used in an ectopic pregnancy, a potentially life-threatening condition, because it kills the foetus.

Hines said that he had no doubt supporters of the initiative were “earnest in their desire to prevent abortions” but questioned their understanding that, because of the threat of criminal charges, it will stop accepted medical treatment for complicated conditions such as ectopic and molar pregnancies.

“The argument has been made that these issues are not addressed by the initiative but would require additional laws to be passed” said Hines. “That is not true.”

Citing the case of Rennie Gibbs, who was charged with murder in Mississippi following the stillbirth of her baby, Hines said: “If there is a prosecutor who is willing to do that under current law, imagine the free reign we would have if you can say it’s a person.”

“The other side would say these are scare tactics, but I am scared.”

Freda Bush, an obstetrician gynaecologist in Jackson and a vocal supporter of Yes on 26 campaign, dismissed such concerns. She said: “A lot of physicians are afraid of lawsuits as a result of this amendment but doctors can be sued now. To make a decision based on fear seems irrational.”

She denied that the amendment would stop fertility treatment but acknowledges it would be restricted as it would stop the destruction of unused embryos. It would also prohibit embryos from being frozen, cutting down the number available for a potential pregnancy.

The bottom line, Bush said was to “aid the life on innocent human beings from being killed.”

Atlee Breland, who formed Parents Against MS 26 six weeks ago, said she had been inundated by parents and would-be parents concerned about the effect on their futures. “Saying IVF will continue in Mississippi is like saying driving will continue but you can only buy a gallon of gasoline. It won’t get you very far” she said.

Breland, who plans to canvass door-to-door “down to the wire” said the prohibitions on frozen embryos – and the restriction on the number of eggs a physician is allowed to fertilise – is in effect a ban on IVF.

“We are concerned about all the unintended medical consequences,” she said.”Yes on 26 have been very clear that certain types of birth control, such as IUDs, would be prohibited. What are the implications for women who already have them? What about the progesterone-only birth control pill, which they have finally admitted would be affected? I don’t trust the government to make decisions over what medical treatment I can and can’t have for my family.”

But the ambiguities and potentially far-reaching consequences surrounding it has caused a split in the anti-abortion vote. Some, including the National Right to Life, and Roman Catholic bishops such as Joseph Latino, the bishop of Jackson, have refused to back it. Latino has said it could backfire and harm the push to bring about an amendment to Roe v Wade.

Personhood USA have said that a win on Tuesday will boost similar efforts planned in Colorado, Ohio and Florida.

However, even if the yes voters win, legal experts say that it has a “long way to go” before it impacts on the residents of Mississippi or elsewhere.

Glenn Cohen, a professor of law at Harvard, said the amendment’s “profound ambiguity” accounts for the confusing messages over what it might mean for IVF, birth control and ultimately whether it will succeed. The term “fertilisation” could be taken to mean anything from the penetration of the egg by the sperm, to the implantation of the egg into the uterus which happens later.

Cohen predicts “an immediate challenge” if it passes, mostly likely on the basis that it is unconstitutional.

There has already been a challenge – on which a decision has been postponed until after the ballot – to the amendment, on the grounds that the state constitution doesn’t allow a ballot to amend the Bill of Rights.

Once that is decided, other follow legal battles will follow, said Cohen.

“Even opponents of abortion rights who would like nothing more than to give the courts an opportunity to reverse Roe and Wade may find this amendment a bad vehicle for doing so,” he said.

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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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