Push for ‘Personhood’
Represents New Tack
in Abortion Fight
William Widmer for The New York Times
Johnny Brekeen campaigning for Proposition 26 at the
University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg.
By ERIK ECKHOLM, New
York Times, October 25, 2011
A constitutional amendment facing
voters in Mississippi on Nov. 8, and similar initiatives brewing in half a dozen
other states including Florida and Ohio, would declare a fertilized human egg to
be a legal person, effectively branding abortion and some forms of birth control
With this far-reaching anti-abortion strategy, the proponents of what they call
personhood amendments hope to reshape the national debate.
“I view it as transformative,” said Brad Prewitt, a lawyer and executive
director of the Yes on 26 campaign, which is named for the Mississippi
proposition. “Personhood is bigger than just shutting abortion clinics;
it’s an opportunity for people to say that we’re made in the image of God.”
Many doctors and women’s health advocates say the proposals would cause a
dangerous intrusion of criminal law into medical care, jeopardizing women’s
rights and even their lives.
The amendment in Mississippi would ban virtually all abortions, including those
resulting from rape or incest. It would bar some birth control methods,
including IUDs and “morning-after pills” that prevent fertilized eggs from
implanting in the uterus. It would also outlaw the destruction of embryos
created in laboratories.
The amendment has been endorsed by candidates for governor from both major
parties, and it appears likely to pass, said W. Martin Wiseman, director of the
John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University.
Legal challenges would surely follow, but even if the amendment is ultimately
declared unconstitutional, it could disrupt vital care, critics say, and force
years of costly court battles.
“This is the most extreme in a field of extreme anti-abortion measures that have
been before the states this year,” said Nancy Northup, president of the Center
for Reproductive Rights, a legal advocacy group.
Opponents, who were handing out brochures on Saturday to tailgate partiers
before the University of Southern Mississippi football game in Hattiesburg, said
they hoped to dispel the impression that the amendment simply bars abortions — a
popular idea in Mississippi — by warning that it would also limit
contraceptives, make doctors afraid to save women with life-threatening
pregnancies and possibly hamper in vitro fertility treatments.
The drive for personhood amendments has split the anti-abortion forces
nationally. Some groups call it an inspired moral leap, while traditional
leaders of the fight, including National Right to Life and the Roman Catholic
bishops, have refused to promote it, charging that the tactic is reckless and
could backfire, leading to a Supreme Court defeat that would undermine progress
in carving away at Roe v. Wade.
The approach, granting legal rights to embryos, is fundamentally different from
the abortion restrictions that have been adopted in dozens of states.
These try to narrow or hamper access to abortions by, for example, sharply
restricting the procedures at as early as 20 weeks, requiring women to view
ultrasounds of the fetus, curbing insurance coverage and imposing expensive
regulations on clinics.
The Mississippi amendment aims to sidestep existing legal battles, simply
stating that “the term ‘person’ or ‘persons’ shall include every human being
from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.”
A similar measure has been defeated twice, by large margins, in Colorado.
But the national campaign, promoted by Personhood USA, a Colorado-based group,
found more receptive ground in Mississippi, where anti-abortion sentiment
crosses party and racial lines, and where the state already has so many
restrictions on abortion that only one clinic performs the procedure.
In 2009, an ardent abortion foe named Les Riley formed a state personhood group
and started collecting the signatures needed to reach the ballot. Evangelicals
and other longtime abortion opponents have pressed the case, and Proposition 26
has the support of a range of political leaders. Its passage could
energize similar drives brewing in Florida, Michigan, Montana, Ohio, Wisconsin
and other states.
In Mississippi, the emotional battle is being fought with radio and television
ads, phone banks and old-fashioned canvassing.
Among the picnicking fans being lobbied outside the stadium in Hattiesburg on
Saturday, Lauree Mooney, 40, and her husband, Jerry Mooney, 45, U.S.M. alumni,
disagreed with each other. She said that she is against abortion but that
the amendment is “too extreme.” Mr. Mooney said he would vote yes because
“I’ve always been against abortion.”
Shelley Shoemake, 41, a chiropractor, said the proposal is “yanking me in one
direction and the other.” She knows women who had abortions as teenagers,
and feels compassion for them. “I’ve got a lot of praying to do” before
the vote, she said.
Mississippi will also elect a new governor on Nov. 8. The Republican
candidate, Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, is co-chairman of Yes on 26 and his campaign
distributes bumper stickers for the initiative. The Democratic candidate,
Johnny DuPree, the mayor of Hattiesburg and the state’s first black major-party
candidate for governor in modern times, says he will vote for it though he is
worried about its impact on medical care and contraception.
No one can yet be sure of how the amendment would affect criminal proceedings,
said Jonathan Will, director of the Bioethics and Health Law Center at the
Mississippi College School of Law. Could a woman taking a morning-after
pill be charged with murder?
But many leaders of the anti-abortion movement fear that the strategy will be
counterproductive. Federal courts would almost surely declare the
amendment unconstitutional, said James Bopp Jr., a prominent conservative lawyer
from Terre Haute, Ind., and general counsel of National Right to Life, since it
contradicts a woman’s current right to an abortion in the early weeks of
“From the standpoint of protecting unborn lives it’s utterly futile,” he said,
“and it has the grave risk that if it did get to the Supreme Court, the court
would write an even more extreme abortion policy.”
Bishop Joseph Latino of Jackson, Miss., said in a statement last week that the
Roman Catholic Church does not support Proposition 26 because “the push for a
state amendment could ultimately harm our efforts to overturn Roe vs. Wade.”
Conservative Christian groups including the American Family Association and the
Family Research Council are firmly behind the proposal.
Dr. Randall S. Hines, a fertility specialist in Jackson working against
Proposition 26 with the group Mississippians for Healthy Families, said that the
amendment reflects “biological ignorance.” Most fertilized eggs, he said,
do not implant in the uterus or develop further.
“Once you recognize that the majority of fertilized eggs don’t become people,
then you recognize how absurd this amendment is,” Dr. Hines said. He fears
severe unintended consequences for doctors and women dealing with ectopic or
other dangerous pregnancies and for in vitro fertility treatments. “We’ll
be asking the Legislature, the governor, judges to decide what is best for the
patient,” he said.
Dr. Eric Webb, an obstetrician in Tupelo, Miss., who has spoken out on behalf of
Proposition 26, said that the concerns about wider impacts were overblown and
that the critics were “avoiding the central moral question.”
“With the union of the egg and sperm, that is life, and genetically human,” Dr.
Keith Mason, president of Personhood USA, said he did not agree that the Supreme
Court would necessarily reject a personhood amendment. The ultimate goal,
he said, is a federal amendment, with a victory in Mississippi as the first
Eric Eagan contributed reporting from Hattiesburg, Miss.