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Personhood Initiative Defeated in Mississippi

On Election Day, Mississippi voters rejected a ballot initiative that would have added a personhood amendment to the state’s constitution deeming that life begins at fertilization.[1] Initiative 26 was defeated 58 to 42 percent, a substantial margin, particularly given that opinion polls the day before showed that voters were almost evenly split on the issue.[2] The initiative represents the most conservative views of the anti-abortion movement; if passed, it would have completely banned abortion, even for instances of rape or incest. It was unclear just how far the initiative would have reached; however, the amendment would have resulted in such possibilities as not allowing a woman to terminate a pregnancy in life-threatening situations, bans on certain types of birth control, particularly IUDs, that prevent implantation of a fertilized egg, and limitations to in vitro fertilization.[3]
 
Opposition to the initiative came partly from pro-choice advocates and was led by Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).[4] Further opposition came from numerous anti-choice individuals and organizations who saw the lack of clarity of the initiative’s reach as problematic—many of whom also believe that life begins at conception, not fertilization.[5] For example, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour was concerned about the ambiguity of the measure. The organization, National Right to Life (NRL), feared it would set back their movement; they were particularly concerned that the initiative might pass,  go to the Supreme Court, and be struck down, thereby reaffirming Roe v. Wade.[6] James Bopp Jr. of the NRL described Initiative 26 as “potentially very dangerous.”[7]
 
Despite the defeat of the amendment, the personhood movement has not wavered and Personhood USA plans to continue similar initiatives in other states. It is likely that many more of these amendments will appear on 2012 ballots. Personhood USA is pushing for such initiatives to be on the ballots in swing states such as Colorado, Florida, Nevada, and Ohio.[8] Mississippi may act as a guide for other states, and grassroots mobilization and activism may be credited with the rejection of Initiative 26.[9] “I think it was just a matter of making sure that the voters were informed, and when they were, they came to our side,” commented Felicia Brown-Williams of Planned Parenthood Southeast and outreach director for Mississippians for Healthy Families.[10]
 
There  were significant levels of resources and mobilization surrounding the rejection of Initiative 26, and this demonstrates that the rejection was a great success for reproductive health and that such activism needs to continue. “The people of Mississippi stood up for women’s health and said no to political interference in a woman’s private medical decisions,” commented Nsombi Lambright, executive director of the ACLU of Mississippi.[11]
 
Abortion-rights groups hail this victory and see it as a positive sign for voter turnout in the 2012 election.[12] However, the success of another ballot initiative in Mississippi, Initiative 27, which requires every voter to present a government-issued photo ID to vote, called into question the likelihood of such voter turnout being as high as expected. The initiative presented itself as a way to prevent voter fraud, but it has been criticized by, for example, Loretta Ross of SisterSong as a discriminatory toward people of color, as well as immigrants, married women, and transgendered people.[13] As Ross further noted, some of the very people that are protected by the rejection of Initiative 26 are the same ones whose voting rights could very easily be taken away due to the success of Initiative 27. “We have to ask why opponents of the Personhood Initiative did not see the link between that and the Voter ID exclusion Initiative that jeopardizes the prospects for women in Mississippi continuing to have access to abortions and contraceptives in the state,” she added.[14]
 
 

[1] Julie Rovner, “Mississippi Voters Reject ‘Personhood’ Measure,” 9 November 2011, accessed 14 November 2011, <http://www.npr.org/2011/11/09/142164176/personhood-amendment-rejected-by-miss-voters>.
[2] “Mississippi County Votes Results,” 9 November 2011, accessed 15 November 2011, <http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/files/elections/2011/by_county/MS_Initiative_1108.html?SITE=AP&SECTION=POLITICS>; M. J. Lee, “Poll: ‘Personhood’ a Toss-up in Miss.,” 7 November 2011, accessed 15 November 2011, <http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1111/67738.html>.
[3] Julie Rovner, “‘Personhood’ Divides Anti-abortion Groups,” 9 November 2011, accessed 14 November, 2011, <http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2011/11/09/142184556/personhood-divides-anti-abortion-groups?ps=rs>; Katharine Q. Seelye, “Mississippi Voters Reject Anti-abortion Measure,” 8 November 2011, accessed 14 November 2011, <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/09/us/politics/votes-across-the-nation-could-serve-as-a-political-barometer.html?_r=3&scp=3&sq=mississippi%20personhood&st=cse>.
[4] Seelye, “Mississippi Voters Reject Anti-abortion Measure.”
[5] Rovner, “‘Personhood’ Divides Anti-abortion Groups.”
[6] Seelye, “Mississippi Voters Reject Anti-abortion Measure.”
[7] Rovner, “‘Personhood’ Divides Anti-abortion Groups.”
[8] Sam Baker, “Abortion-rights Groups Take Heart from Win over Mississippi ‘Personhood’ Law,” 14 November 2011, accessed 14 November 2011, <http://thehill.com/blogs/healthwatch/abortion/193287-abortion-rights-groups-take-heart-from-win-in-mississippi>.
[9] Loretta Ross, “Defeating Personhood: A Critical but Incomplete Victory for Reproductive Health,” Reality Check, 9 November 2011, accessed 14 December 2011, <http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/article/2011/11/09/personhood-defeated-in-mississippi>.
[10] Rovner, “Mississippi Voters Reject ‘Personhood’ Measure.”
[11] Initative 26 Is Defeated!” American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, accessed 14 December 2011, <http://www.aclu-ms.org/>.
[12] Baker, “Abortion-rights Groups Take Heart from Win over Mississippi ‘Personhood’ Law.”
[13] Ross, “Defeating Personhood: A Critical but Incomplete Victory for Reproductive Health.”; Seelye, “Mississippi Voters Reject Anti-abortion Measure.”
[14] Ross, “Defeating Personhood: A Critical but Incomplete Victory for Reproductive Health.”

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