Miss. personhood, which split pro-life groups, is defeated

Baptist Press
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Posted: Nov 09, 2011 5:22 PM
Miss. personhood, which split pro-life groups, is defeated
JACKSON, Miss. (BP) -- Mississippi voters Tuesday rejected a constitutional amendment that would have defined human life as beginning at conception, capping a campaign that had divided the pro-life community and delivering a blow to the nationwide personhood movement.

The personhood amendment known as Initiative Measure 26, lost by a margin of 58-42 percent, a surprising margin for an amendment that just days ago was expected to pass. The proposed 21-word amendment stated that the word person included "every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof." The "cloning" reference was aimed at prohibiting research cloning.

Personhood supporters said the amendment would have ended abortion in the state and would have directly challenged Roe v. Wade, but opponents made sure the campaign was about anything but about abortion -- or at least most forms of abortion.

The main opposition group, Mississippians for Healthy Families, claimed in campaign ads that Initiative 26 would have prohibited the use of contraception such as the pill and would have banned abortions in the cases of rape, incest or when the mother's life was in danger. Most TV and radio ads by the group made those points, claiming, for instance, that a woman with an ectopic pregnancy would not be allowed to have an abortion. "You can be pro-life and still vote no," a nurse said in one of the television ads. The group also said the amendment would ban in vitro fertilization.

Yes on 26, the primary group supporting the amendment, countered by saying the amendment would not have banned contraception, IVF, or abortions to save the life of the mother, although the group conceded that abortions in cases of rape or incest would be prohibited. Amendment supporters tried to counter the rape argument by making public the testimonies of people who had been conceived by rape.

Despite Mississippi's pro-life nature, though, the Yes on 26 campaign had trouble overcoming arguments that the amendment did more than ban abortion. It's the second state to reject a personhood proposal; Colorado did so twice, in 2008 and 2010.

Mississippi's conservative credentials aren't to be questioned: Its 86 percent approval of a constitutional marriage amendment in 2004 remains the highest of any state.

"Personhood USA firmly believes that our campaign fell victim to the outright lies of our opposition, and because of their lies, children will continue to be murdered in Mississippi," said Keith Ashley of Personhood USA, the national organization behind the initiatives. "... Our opposition's most successful tactics were steeped in falsehoods."

Personhood USA, Ashley said, will continue trying to pass personhood initiatives not only in Mississippi but nationwide. Personhood initiatives could be on the ballot in other states next year.

"We vow to continue on this path towards affirming the basic dignity and human rights of all people because we are assured that it is the right thing to do, and we are prepared for a long journey," Ashley said. "... The time has come for America to stop treating the unborn as property to be disposed of as we see fit."

The amendment did not have the backing of all the major pro-life groups.

It did receive support from the Family Research Council, Liberty Counsel, the American Family Association, the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and the Mississippi Baptist Convention. Yet National Right to Life and Americans United for Life -- two groups that often are at the forefront of promoting state-level pro-life bills -- remained neutral. Within the past two years, those two groups helped pass laws in about eight states prohibiting abortion at 20 weeks' gestation.

The pro-life divide was not over personhood -- each neutral group agrees that life begins at conception -- but rather over whether personhood amendments are the best strategy. Clarke Forsythe, senior counsel for Americans United for Life, said some pro-lifers were concerned that the amendment was being promoted at a time when the Supreme Court is not ready to overturn Roe. Five of the court's nine justices are on record as supporting Roe. Forsythe, though, said he didn't believe the amendment would have directly challenged Roe.

"A direct challenge to Roe would be a criminal prohibition on abortion," he told Baptist Press prior to the vote. "This is not a criminal prohibition on abortion."

Asked if he instead favored an "incremental" strategy to challenging Roe, Forsythe responded that he believed in "accumulated victories."

"We believe in accumulated victories, and we work for accumulated victories."

Americans United for Life President Charmaine Yoest said Wednesday that the defeat of Initiative 26 was not a setback for the pro-life cause.

" long and noble legal precedent for the personhood of unborn children did not suffer harm by the defeat of the ballot initiative in Mississippi," she said. "This measure would not have led to the overturn of Roe v. Wade, but had a symbolic appeal for pro-life Americans. It was not drafted in such a way that it would conflict with Roe."

She added, "The measure would have restrained government actions -- government-funded abortions -- and not abortions conducted by individuals or enterprises such as Planned Parenthood."

Still, Yoest said, the tactics used by Initiative 26 opponents showed the "willingness of the abortion lobby to fight with every dollar it possesses, with half-truths and with mud-against-the-wall tactics."

National Right to Life released a statement to Baptist Press saying, "National Right to Life believes the unborn child is a person. National Right to Life Political Action Committee's strategy and focus for 2012 will be to elect a pro-life president and pro-life majorities in both the U.S. House and U.S. Senate."

James Bopp Jr., an attorney who works for National Right to Life, told The Wall Street Journal he feared a personhood amendment would force the Supreme Court to reaffirm and even broaden Roe. That, he said, would be "the death knell to all other regulations on abortion."

Ashley, of Personhood USA, seemed to counter the arguments of his fellow pro-lifers when he said, "A personhood amendment, recognizing everyone as a legal person, is the right thing to do. It is always right to protect our citizens. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, 'The time is always right to do what is right.'"

Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press.

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