Mississippi to Put Abortion in Election Spotlight
By Pamela M. Prah, Staff Writer
The abortion battles that flared up in statehouses nationwide in 2011 will extend to the ballot box in Mississippi this November.
Mississippi is among just a handful of states to hold elections this year, and among the items on its ballot will be one that defines "person" to include every human being from the moment of fertilization. If approved, supporters say the measure would criminalize all abortion, including those applying to cases of rape or incest.
The ballot measure comes after a historic legislative year in which states enacted more than 80 new restrictions on abortion, according to a report from the Guttmacher Institute, which supports abortion rights. This year's flurry of laws is more than double the previous record of 34 abortion restrictions enacted in 2005, the institute says. But none are like the measure that Mississippi voters are expected to consider November 8.
Backers of the Mississippi measure are clear: If approved, they say, the initiative would ultimately outlaw abortion and human cloning, embryo stem cell research, and " other forms of medical cannibalism would be effectively stopped." Opponents say the measure could make in-vitro fertilization and certain forms of birth control illegal "and miscarriages could become suspect ."
Colorado voters rejected similar measures in 2008 and 2010 by large margins, but many observers say that if the measure is cleared for the ballot by the Mississippi Supreme Court, voters in Mississippi will approve it, setting up a challenge to Roe v. Wade , the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.
"This state is very pro-life," says Brian Anderson, who teaches history, political science and geography at Mississippi University for Women. He says that party labels carry little weight when it comes to social issues like abortion and that Republicans and Democrats alike strongly believe that life begins at conception. "This will likely pass by comfortable margins," he says. "It's a no-brainer."
Both of the gubernatorial nominees who hope to replace term-limited incumbent Haley Barbour support the measure, albeit with different levels of enthusiasm. Republican Lieutenant Governor Phil Bryant is co-chairman of the "Yes on 26 Campaign," which refers to the number of the initiative and the name of the group responsible for getting the measure on the ballot. Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree, the Democratic candidate for governor, says simply that he is pro-life and supports the personhood amendment.
However, DuPree has concerns about "unintended consequences" of the amendment, such as its impact on fertility treatments like in-vitro fertilization. DuPree also supports the right of women to have abortions in the event their lives are endangered or if they are victims of rape or incest.
Civil rights rhetoric
The leading organization behind the effort is a group called Personhood USA , which hopes to mount similar initiatives in all 50 states. The group calls personhood "the most important civil rights struggle of our age."
Supporters of the initiative think exceptions that permit abortion in cases of rape and incest are wrong. Backers organized a " Conceived in Rape Tour " in June to make their case for why rape and incest should not be exempt under the measure. "A baby is not the worst thing that could ever happen to a rape victim — an abortion is," says Rebecca Kiessling, an advocate for personhood rights, who is featured in the campaign.
"If a majority of states legally recognize the unborn "as persons in the whole sense," Kiessling says on her blog for Personhood USA, "then the whole Roe v Wade opinion collapses. This is why we must support personhood from state to state."
But not everyone in the anti-abortion movement agrees that state-level personhood laws are the best approach to rolling back Roe . In Colorado, the personhood amendment had a hard time attracting many prominent endorsements, and even some pro-life activists worried the proposal was too extreme, says Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver. "It was widely seen as a radical proposal that would require massive changes in state law." National Right to Life and Americans United for Life were among those groups that didn't take a position on the personhood amendment in Colorado.
The main reason that the personhood strategy divides the national anti-abortion movement is that some fear the initiative is so strong in its provisions that if and when it lands before the U.S. Supreme Court, it will ultimately be struck down, keeping Roe v. Wade intact.
James Bopp Jr., an attorney who has argued against abortion before the U.S. Supreme Court, contends "now is not the time to pass state constitutional amendments or bills banning abortion." He says it would hurt pro-life efforts "because there will be yet another federal court decision declaring that state law on abortion is superseded by the federal constitution."
Clarke Forsythe, senior counsel at Americans United for Life, says the Mississippi and Colorado ballot measures don't limit what a person can do or criminalize a person's actions. " A state constitution might not conflict with Roe . It may not create a test case," he says. His organization does not have a position on the Mississippi measure.
Elizabeth Nash of the Guttmacher Institute says the personhood idea is "like old wine in new bottles. She points out that in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there were efforts at the federal level to adopt a "Human Life Amendment," which would grant personhood at fertilization as part of the U.S. Constitution. Those efforts were unsuccessful and the tactic didn't resurface until 2008 in Colorado and this year in Mississippi.
Mississippi isn't known for citizen initiatives. It was the last state to adopt the initiative system, back in the 1990s. While citizens are allowed to put constitutional amendments on the ballot, state law makes it hard to get them there. The signature thresholds are very high and the subject matter must be narrowly drawn.
In addition, before an initiative goes on the ballot in Mississippi, it must be approved by the legislature, which has no opportunity to amend it. This approach is much less common than the direct process used by other states, in which initiatives go straight to the ballot after gathering a sufficient number of voter signatures.
In fact, while 30 initiatives have been filed in Mississippi, only two have ever reached the ballot, both dealing with term limits. Both failed, according to Jennie Bowser of the National Conference of State Legislatures . But this year there will be three : In addition to personhood, voters in Mississippi are expected to consider a measure on voter identification and one on eminent domain.