Mississippi to Vote on Personhood for Unborn Babies

Election Day vote would protect life from moment of conception, but could it threaten long-term efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade?

A pro-life activist holds a sign as he participates in the annual March for Life Jan. 22, 2009, in Washington. The push for personhood amendments has been around for several years, but never before has it had as much chance of success as it does this coming Tuesday in Mississippi.
A pro-life activist holds a sign as he participates in the annual March for Life Jan. 22, 2009, in Washington. The push for personhood amendments has been around for several years, but never before has it had as much chance of success as it does this coming Tuesday in Mississippi. (photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

JACKSON, Miss. — Mississippians could redefine the national abortion debate if they vote Yes on a ballot initiative this coming Tuesday. But some Catholic and pro-life leaders are warning that passage of a personhood amendment could harm pro-life efforts in the long run.

The initiative would legally define the term “person” as including “every human being from the moment of fertilization.” 

Proposition 26 has garnered a lot of national media attention, including some international press, because it is likely to pass in this highly pro-life state, and, if so, it would be the first successful referendum of its kind.

A grassroots effort led by Les Riley collected more than 130,000 signatures from registered voters, nearly 40,000 more than was necessary and only the fourth successful ballot initiative in the state’s history. The amendment is endorsed by both the Democratic and Republican gubernatorial candidates, as well as Attorney General Jim Hood, a Democrat, who promises that, if adopted, he “will defend it if challenged.”

Personhood petitions are active in all 50 states, according to Personhood USA in Arvada, Colo., but ballot initiatives and legislative efforts have thus far been unsuccessful.

Voters in Colorado rejected a 2010 personhood initiative, and a ballot initiative in Nevada was struck down by the court as being too vague. Legislative efforts in several states, including North Dakota and Montana, have not gone far enough to pass into law. The Mississippi ballot initiative was unsuccessfully challenged by Planned Parenthood, the ACLU and the Center for Reproductive Law & Policy in the lower courts and lost an appeal to the state Supreme Court by a vote of 7-2.

“We’ve been sued in pretty much every state where we’ve been active. This is very common for us,” said Personhood USA’s director, Gualberto Garcia Jones. “Planned Parenthood says they trust Mississippi families, but they sued twice to prevent Mississippi families from ever voting on this. It’s a heated battle.”

Stephen Crampton, general counsel and vice president for legal affairs at Liberty Counsel in Tupelo, Miss., who defended the case in Mississippi courts, expects that if the amendment passes there will be an immediate federal challenge on the basis that it’s contrary to Roe v. Wade. That has not deterred his enthusiasm, and he is astounded by the discussion that’s taking place.

“It’s already been an eye-opener, and we’ve already accomplished something by awakening folks to the reality of the [abortion] situation. We’ve had high-level medical experts debating which contraceptives operate as abortifacients. Abortifacients? Even the Mississippi section of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and Mississippi State Medical Association concede that life begins at fertilization in their position papers addressing these amendments,” said Crampton.

“It is a wonderful opportunity for the state Legislature to rethink what we really need to do in recognizing this simple truth that this is fully human and fully alive from that moment of fertilization, and do we not have to do everything in our power to protect and nurture that new life?” he asked.

Wake Up Mississippi, organized by the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, has sponsored billboards urging people to “Vote No on 26,” claiming on its website, “If passed, Personhood Amendment 26 will not only ban abortion but also ban most [if not all] forms of birth control, end in vitro fertilization, and make stem-cell research illegal. In addition, women who miscarry will be subject to criminal investigation.”

Bishop’s Warning

The amendment has already been catapulted onto a national level, with some Democrats warning that Mitt Romney’s support for such laws make him a threat to “women’s health.” In early ctober, the former Massachusetts governor and GOP presidential candidate said he would “absolutely” support a constitutional amendment that would establish the definition of life at conception.

Some pro-life leaders and groups have not endorsed the personhood efforts, claiming it could result in a serious setback in efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade, particularly at the U.S. Supreme Court. The Diocese of Jackson is asking Catholics to study the issue and decide for themselves how to vote.  A statement released by Bishop Joseph Latino upholds the Church’s defense of human life from conception to natural death and its efforts to promote a human-life amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

“While we sincerely respect the goal to amend the Mississippi Constitution,” the statement reads, “if such an amendment were to pass, we are convinced that a federal district court would strike it down based on Roe. This decision would undoubtedly be affirmed by an appellate court, and the case would either not be granted further review by today’s U.S. Supreme Court, or worse, lead to a reaffirmation of Roe. The unintended effect would very likely jeopardize current protections in state law and cause a loss of momentum in the ultimate goal of establishing full legal protection of the unborn from the moment of conception.”

Don Nelson of Nevada LIFE, which opposed the personhood initiative in Nevada, said the amendment “could be dangerous. There are not five justices on the court that will go along with this, and it could cause greater damage by getting to the court and failing,” he said. “In the past, we have not supported efforts like these because we don’t think they will succeed and present greater harm to the movement.”

Nelson adds that the number of children born per thousand is up and the number of abortions per thousand is down, which shows a change in the country.

“All the regulations and laws that we put in place that are changing the attitude of the American people and that have saved maybe millions of unborn children from certain death could be put at risk by the personhood strategy,” said Nelson. “The bishops have been very brave for going out and opposing these strategies.”

Precedent in Racial History

Though frustrated by the diocese’s refusal to endorse the ballot initiative, Garcia Jones, a Catholic, said Personhood USA did not provide negative comments on competing pro-life strategies. “That doesn’t help the movement, and it’s the attitude we would like others to have, too.” 

Perhaps one of the most compelling arguments in favor of personhood comes from the Rev. Walter Hoye, who is leading the effort to pass a human-rights amendment in California that would define not only the personhood of the unborn, but also the elderly and disabled, and has garnered support from Protestants and Catholics alike.

A black man, Hoye has repeatedly traveled to Mississippi to tell his great-grandparents’ story to African-Americans in the state and make a connection between racism in the segregated South of the 20th century and ongoing resistance to the personhood of the unborn child. 

The Ku Klux Klan came one night and surrounded the house of his great-grandfather in Macon, Ga. They lynched him and committed unspeakable crimes against his great-grandmother, lit the house on fire, killing seven of their 14 children. His grandmother’s oldest sister, Annie, saved six of the kids while on fire herself and was not allowed treatment in the local hospital or justice from the local sheriff or a judge.

“Even in the early 1900s, black folks were still considered property, not persons,” said Hoye. “I share that story, and, when I do, communities of color instantly resonate with it. We understand what it’s like not to be a person. Personhood is the final chapter in the civil-rights movement. I’m hoping they vote Yes on Amendment 26 on Tuesday, and I’m hoping California will be the second state.”

Register correspondent Barb Ernster writes from Minneapolis, Minnesota.