A chorus of “amens” filled the statehouse in Jackson, Mississippi, on Halloween night. About 75 people were gathered for a briefing by backers of a ballot initiative that would make the state the first in the U.S. to ban abortion by declaring that life begins at conception.
“Fighting for preservation of the unborn in the state of Mississippi -- that’s a cause worth our strongest efforts and our most committed prayers,” Brad Prewitt told the crowd. The 42-year-old lawyer heads Yes on 26, a political-action committee whose television ads, signs and fliers argue that a vote against the proposition is a vote for abortion.
The word “abortion” doesn’t appear on the Nov. 8 ballot. Instead, voters will decide whether to amend the state constitution to redefine the term “person” to include “every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the equivalent thereof.” That change would 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.
Activists on both sides agree the amendment will likely pass and spark years of litigation that may stall or prevent its implementation. Backers say they hope it will lead the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit -- and reverse -- its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortion. Some anti-abortion advocates, such as Jackson Catholic Bishop Joseph Latino, expressed concern the Mississippi law may backfire, leading to judicial reaffirmation of abortion rights.
Medical groups say the measure may criminalize contraception and miscarriages while limiting access to treatments such as in-vitro fertilization.
Triumph in Mississippi will drive other states to follow its lead and spur a push for federal legislative action, proponents say. Previous so-called personhood attempts in Congress have foundered since the 1970s.
“Passing these laws in the states and building that base is the very thing that will give credibility and traction to the federal efforts,” said Keith Mason, president of Colorado-based Personhood USA, an umbrella group that provides assistance to state affiliates nationwide. “We’re essentially building political capital. Pass or fail on the ballot, we are churning up, literally, a movement.”
Mississippi isn’t alone. Petitions to put personhood amendments on 2012 ballots have been filed in Ohio, Nevada and California, Mason said, while signature-gathering is under way in Montana, Florida and Oregon. Organizers hope to soon begin petitioning in Colorado, Arkansas, Oklahoma, North Dakota and Nebraska, he said. Legislation has been filed in Alabama and awaits co-sponsorship in Wisconsin and Michigan, he said.
Personhood bids represent a change from the strategy of eroding access traditionally embraced by abortion foes, said Elizabeth Nash, a policy analyst for the Guttmacher Institute, a New York-based compiler of reproductive-health data.
Mississippi’s amendment would go beyond the abortion ban that South Dakota’s legislature passed in 2006, Nash said. 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.
States have passed 84 laws restricting abortion access in 2011, the most of any year, Guttmacher data show. Only four states had higher teen pregnancy rates than Mississippi in 2005, the most recent year for which data is available, according to the institute.
‘The Lord’s Teachings’
Mason, 30, founded Personhood USA in a Denver suburb between failed personhood-amendment bids in Colorado in 2010 and 2008. He said those attempts were still victories because they raised awareness of the issue, just as Mississippi’s will. The group has spent about $1 million on the Mississippi campaign this year, he said, matching contributions from the American Family Association, a Tupelo-based evangelical Christian group.
Abortion is against “my moral belief, which is based in the Lord’s teachings,” Janis Lane, a 63-year old retired marketing manager from Byram, said over dinner this week at an Italian restaurant near the capital. She compared her fight to end the procedure with her father’s against Nazism during World War II.
Lane sat beside four female friends, fellow members of a statewide network of mostly Republican and Tea Party activists who devote hours each week to picketing Mississippi’s sole abortion clinic, in Jackson, and delivering “choose life” brochures to churches. They nodded in unison when a fellow diner expressed thanks for their help in closing at least seven abortion clinics in the state since 1984.
Opponents face an uphill battle in persuading people to vote down the amendment, said John Bruce, who teaches political science at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. That’s because the state’s widespread opposition to abortion crosses party and demographic lines, and because the Yes on 26 campaign has succeeded in equating support for the amendment with so-called pro-life values, he said.
To counter that notion, volunteers for Mississippians for Healthy Families, which heads a coalition of opposition groups, have staffed phone banks six days a week from four field offices around the state for the past month.
“You can be pro-life and still vote no, because 26 simply goes too far,” says one ad running on local television. The organization relies on funding from individual donors and Planned Parenthood affiliates nationwide, and has received more than $150,000 in donations in the past 10 days, said campaign manager Jonathan Levy. One staffer dressed up for Halloween as a pack of birth control pills.
A statement from the Mississippi Medical Association said the amendment’s reach would go beyond abortion access. Unintended consequences, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says, may include criminal prosecution of women who miscarry or use contraception and of doctors who administer life-saving treatment to women with abnormal pregnancies or disease. The measure “undermines access to safe and reliable infertility medical treatments” and may lead doctors to flee the state, according to the National Infertility Association.
The Yes on 26 campaign disputes those claims.
The amendment’s “fatally ambiguous” wording makes it impossible to predict what the legal ramifications would be, I. Glenn Cohen, an assistant professor at Harvard Law School, said by telephone from Cambridge, Massachusetts. A fetus might be counted toward the number of people allowed in car-pool lane, for example, though courts may avoid such absurd interpretations, he said.
“That ambiguity is striking a lot of pro-life people here as concerning,” Governor Haley Barbour, who describes himself as pro-life, said Nov. 2 on MSNBC. The term-limited Republican, whose replacement voters will choose next week, said he hadn’t made up his mind which way he’ll vote.
The two candidates vying to replace him have. Phil Bryant, the Republican lieutenant governor, and Johnny DuPree, the Democratic mayor of Hattiesburg, support the personhood amendment.