Mississippi Voters Reject ‘Personhood’ Ballot Cutting Off Abortion Access

Mississippi voters rejected a ballot initiative that would have made the state the first in the U.S. to ban abortion by declaring that life begins at conception.

The so-called personhood bid lost yesterday by a margin of about 58 percent to 42 percent, with 96 percent of precincts reporting, according to the Associated Press. The amendment to the state constitution would have redefined the term “person” to include “every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the equivalent thereof.”

The measure would have bestowed legal rights on fertilized eggs and cut off access to abortion by equating it with murder, making no exception for rape, incest or when a woman’s life is in danger. Medical groups warned it might have criminalized contraception and miscarriages while limiting access to treatments such as in-vitro fertilization.

“To the degree there’s a national implication to this, I think it will give pause to Republican legislators and perhaps some Democrats who want to say I’m for this,” said John Bruce, who teaches political science at the University of Mississippi. “Now they’ve seen it fail in what has consistently been called the most pro-life state in the country.

“If it can’t pass here, it’d be hard to pass anywhere,” he said in a telephone interview from Oxford.

Unexpected Rejection

Activists on both sides had expected the amendment to pass and spark years of litigation that would have stalled or prevented its implementation. The issue divided anti-abortion advocates. Catholic Bishop Joseph Latino of Jackson, for example, had expressed concern that success in Mississippi might backfire and lead to judicial reaffirmation of abortion rights.

Backers said they viewed it as a way to lead the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit -- and reverse -- its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortion. They also said victory in Mississippi would boost support for similar amendments in other states and spur a push for federal legislative action.

Previous “personhood” bids in Congress have foundered since the 1970s, and a similar amendment to Mississippi’s failed in Colorado in 2010 and 2008.

In 2011, bills have been introduced in 18 states that proposed establishing that life begins at conception or fertilization, according to the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights. Campaigns to push for similar ballot initiatives are under way in at least 14 states, according to Keith Mason, president of Colorado-based Personhood USA, an umbrella group that provides assistance to state affiliates nationwide.

‘Sobering’ Outcome

“This doesn’t change what we are planning in other states, but perhaps is sobering to those beginning these fights for the preborn that victory may not come right away,” Mason said in an e-mail.

The defeat in Mississippi “sends an unequivocal message to proponents of these measures -- that the American people, no matter the political perspective, will not stand for such blatant attacks on the health and constitutionally protected rights of women in this country,” Nancy Northup, president and chief executive of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement.

Mississippi’s amendment would have been even more extreme than the abortion ban South Dakota’s legislature passed in 2006, said Elizabeth Nash, a policy analyst for the Guttmacher Institute, a New York-based compiler of reproductive-health data. That law, which voters overturned, made exceptions for the life of the woman. Similar bans adopted in 1991 in Louisiana and Utah, which included some exceptions for rape and incest, were struck down in federal court, she said.

Proponent Groups

Though the word “abortion” didn’t appear on the ballot, backers of the amendment argued that a vote against the proposition would be a vote in favor of the procedure. Those groups included Yes on 26, a local political-action committee named for the initiative, Personhood USA, and the American Family Association, a Tupelo-based evangelical Christian group.

Planned Parenthood affiliates nationwide and Mississippians for Healthy Families, which headed a coalition of local groups opposed to the amendment, said the measure went too far.

Separately, Mississippians elected Republican Phil Bryant to replace Governor Haley Barbour, who was prohibited from running again because of term limits. Bryant, who’s served as lieutenant governor since 2008, defeated Johnny DuPree, the Democratic mayor of Hattiesburg.

Voters also passed an initiative requiring photo identification to vote.

To contact the reporter on this story: Esmé E. Deprez in New York at edeprez@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Tannenbaum at mtannen@bloomberg.net.

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