By Sam Baker - 11/08/11 10:00 AM EST
Voters in Mississippi could approve unprecedented restrictions on abortion when they head to the polls Tuesday.
A ballot initiative in Mississippi would redefine the word “person” as it’s used in the state constitution. If the measure passes, state law would say that life begins at “the moment of fertilization.”
Mississippi voters were split almost evenly on the “personhood” measure heading into Tuesday’s vote, according to the latest results from Public Policy Polling. Jennifer Mason, communications director for Personhood USA, said she was confident the measure would pass.
“If there is any hesitation, most of the people considering voting no have been hearing the lies from Planned Parenthood … but we know that when we get the truth out to people, we win,” she said.
Even some Republicans have reservations about the personhood approach. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a standard-bearer for conservative Republicans, said he “had some concerns” about the proposal but ultimately voted for it. And conservative legal analysts have said the movement could backfire.
The issue is already a factor in the 2012 presidential race. Republican candidate Mitt Romney has taken heat for supporting the personhood approach, which his critics say is a reversal from his time as Massachusetts governor. Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said last week that she was "outraged" by the personhood proposal and urged Floridians not to put a similar measure on that state's ballot next year.
Mississippi’s “personhood” measure would be unprecedented. Although several states have enacted new restrictions on abortion, no state has given explicit legal rights to fetuses and embryos. And opponents say that step comes with dangerous side effects.
Susan Appleton, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said the personhood measure would raise thorny issues for Mississippi lawmakers. State anti-abortion laws almost always target doctors, she noted. But defining embryos as people could subject pregnant women to criminal prosecution if they try to obtain an abortion.
Appleton said the personhood approach could also limit access to birth control and in vitro fertilization.
“Every time you try to transfer or freeze an embryo, are you subjecting it to a risk of death that could create liability for reckless or negligent homicide?” she asked.
Pro-abortion-rights groups such as Planned Parenthood also say the personhood measure would ban some forms of birth control and raise new legal questions when, for example, a pregnant woman requires medical procedures like chemotherapy.
Personhood USA’s Mason dismissed those suggestions. She said the personhood measure would simply codify that doctors must treat both pregnant women and their fetuses as equal patients.
“There’s no way this can restrict anything that does not kill a human being,” she said.
Mason said she’s prepared for personhood to end up in the courts if Mississippi voters approve the ballot initiative. And though opponents were still weighing their options on Monday, they said a legal challenge is certainly an option.
“We remain hopeful that this dangerous initiative will fail at the polls, and that voters will reject this attempt to allow government to interfere in the most personal health care decisions of Mississippi’s women and families,” said Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, a staff Attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. “However, should the amendment pass, all options are on the table—including litigation. We will not stand by while thousands of women and families are placed at risk.”
Mississippi is the second state to vote on personhood. Colorado has rejected the approach twice.