Abortion-rights groups take heart from win over Mississippi 'personhood' law

Abortion-rights supporters emboldened by a victory in Mississippi believe the controversial issue will drive voters to the polls and work in their favor in the 2012 election.

Voters in the deeply conservative Magnolia State on Tuesday overwhelmingly rejected a controversial “personhood” measure that split anti-abortion-rights groups.

Despite the Bible Belt loss, backers of a personhood law, which would define human life as beginning “at the moment of fertilization, cloning or the equivalent thereof,” plan to offer ballot measures in several battleground states next year.

Given the victory in Mississippi, abortion-rights groups think the measures could help turnout for Democrats and President Obama in particular, boosting his reelection bid.

Judy Waxman, vice president of health and reproductive rights at the National Women’s Law Center, said the concept of personhood is further to the right than any abortion platform that has been on the table in previous elections. That shift, as well as the divide within the anti-abortion movement, could provide an opportunity for Democrats.

“The question about abortion seems of late to have moved into contraception,” Waxman said.

Personhood would likely limit access to contraception. And congressional Republicans have repeatedly tried to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood, which performs abortions but spends far more time and money on birth control and other women’s health services. GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney has also proposed cutting off federal funds to Planned Parenthood.

Jennifer Mason, communications director for Personhood USA, said the group is working to get personhood measures onto next year’s ballot in several key swing states, including Florida, Ohio, Nevada and Colorado. President George W. Bush won all four states in 2004, but then-Sen. Obama (D-Ill.) took them in 2008.

While conservative ballot initiatives have helped drive Republican turnout in the past, Mason said her organization isn’t motivated by that idea.

“We are not certain how sentiment against Obama would help us in 2012, but to us that isn’t a key factor,” Mason said. “We persist with personhood because babies in the womb are treated as property, not as people, in the United States.”

The danger for Republicans might have been spelled out in Mississippi, where Democrats and abortion-rights supporters seized on the personhood measure — and Romney’s support for it.

Romney said during a Fox News interview last month that he “absolutely” would support constitutional amendments stating that life begins at conception. Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz used the comments to link Romney to the personhood movement before it failed in Mississippi, and to rally opposition in her home state of Florida.

NARAL Pro-Choice America released new polling last week that suggested the abortion issue could help Obama regain ground among female voters who supported him in 2008 but have drifted away since. The group said those women — whom it dubbed “defectors” — are more likely to support Obama after hearing a contrast between his stance on abortion rights and the GOP’s.

“There’s a real opportunity here on this particular issue,” said Al Quinlan, president of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, which conducted the poll for NARAL.