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Mississippi attempts to define the start of personhood

A state initiative would ban all abortions. But opponents of the ballot measure say it would also ban many birth control pills and hamper popular infertility treatments, claims proponents are calling 'scare tactics.'

November 04, 2011|By Richard Fausset, Los Angeles Times
  • Larry Gonzalez, 42, prays outside the only clinic to offer abortions in Jackson, Miss. Voters in the state will decide Nov. 8 whether to ban abortion by declaring that life begins at conception.
Larry Gonzalez, 42, prays outside the only clinic to offer abortions in… (Esme E. Deprez, Bloomberg )

Reporting from Clarksdale, Miss.

Gail Giaramita was walking door-to-door in this old cotton town on a recent afternoon, genially informing voters about the simple choice they faced when it came to Initiative 26, the statewide ballot measure that would define personhood as beginning at the moment of fertilization.

"If you believe that the unborn are human beings, you need to vote yes," Giaramita explained to W.L. Wilkins, proprietor of Big Mama's grocery store. "If you believe that women should continue to have the right to abort their babies, you need to vote no."

If that's all there was to it — if Initiative 26 would simply ban all abortions, even in cases of rape or incest — this proposed amendment to the state Constitution would be controversial enough. But opponents of the measure are warning of other potential consequences, including a ban on many birth control pills and a severe hampering of popular infertility treatments.

Proponents call these charges untrue "scare tactics."

Either way, the measure's passage would count as an unprecedented attempt to nullify the abortion right granted under Roe vs. Wade. Personhood USA, the main supporter of the Mississippi measure, says a victory here could "change [the] abortion debate," as part of a "larger, global movement to define when life begins in an effort to undercut the case for legalized abortion."

At the same time, however, many observers, including some key antiabortion activists, expect the initiative to be immediately challenged in federal court, and probably struck down, with new rulings that may end up strengthening the hand of abortion supporters.

Among the doubters is Joseph Latino, the Roman Catholic bishop of Jackson, Miss., who has called the personhood effort "noble," but declined to endorse it, warning that it "could ultimately harm our efforts to overthrow Roe vs. Wade."

The idea of ending abortion by retooling the state-level legal definition of a person is not new, but it may have its best chance of success in Tuesday's vote in Mississippi — the most conservative state in the nation, according to a Gallup poll released in February. Both Democratic and Republican candidates for governor and attorney general here support the initiative, and as of last month, the "yes" faction has a substantial fundraising lead on the "no" crowd.

"I think our chances are very good," said Les Riley, the initiative's sponsor and founder of the group Personhood Mississippi. "But I don't believe in chance. I believe in providence."

In recent years, a number of states have considered and rejected similar proposals, most notably Colorado, where propositions were voted down in 2008 and 2010. Those efforts and the one in Mississippi were backed by Personhood USA, a Colorado-based group that has attracted antiabortion activists fed up with waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court to tilt in their favor.

The group is hoping to put similar initiatives before voters in a number of states next year, including in California, where supporters plan to begin gathering signatures in January, President Keith Mason said.

In Mississippi, the initiative's opponents are characterizing it as a case of government overreach, in apparent deference to the state's conservative tenor.

One TV ad from the "vote no" group Mississippians for Healthy Families features a rape victim who says the initiative goes "too far."

"It's perfectly acceptable to be pro-life and against Initiative 26," she says.

Though few top state politicians of either party have criticized the initiative, medical groups have. The Mississippi State Medical Assn. has warned that if the initiative passes, doctors could be charged with murder or wrongful death for "employing techniques physicians have used for years."

The Mississippi Nurses Assn. has said that some birth controls pills could become illegal, because the hormones they contain not only prevent ovulation, they might prevent a fertilized egg from implanting into the uterus.

A group called Parents Against MS 26 argues that in vitro fertilization would be essentially rendered ineffective because the initiative could ban the freezing of leftover embryos created as part of the IVF process. The American Society of Reproductive Medicine has stated that the initiative would "thwart the ability of those who suffer from infertility to seek treatment appropriate to their disease."

The group Yes on 26 has called these and other concerns "scare tactics" promulgated by national groups such as Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union. The initiative, proponents say, would not ban in vitro fertilization per se, only the destruction of unused embryos. Doctors, they say, would not be prevented from saving the life of a woman during a problematic pregnancy. And they promise that "most forms" of birth control pills would not be banned.

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