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Mississippi's defeated antiabortion measure may be just the beginning

Personhood USA says the conservative state's rejection of Initiative 26 won't slow the movement to define human life as starting at fertilization.

November 09, 2011|By Richard Fausset, Los Angeles Times
  • Carol Gonzalez, 47, demonstrates in favor of banning abortion outside the sole clinic in Jackson, Miss., to offer the procedure. On Tuesday, voters rejected the measure 58% to 42% -- a loss in a state that is by some measures the nation's most conservative and religious.
Carol Gonzalez, 47, demonstrates in favor of banning abortion outside… (Esme E. Deprez / Bloomberg )

Reporting from Atlanta — Now that Mississippi voters, among the most conservative in the nation, have firmly defeated the abortion-banning amendment known as Initiative 26, a broader debate has broken out about whether the "personhood" movement behind the initiative can be successful in putting similar measures before voters in other states in 2012.

The movement seeks to change state constitutions so that a person's life is legally defined as beginning at the moment of fertilization. The Mississippi initiative would have made such a change and, in so doing, outlawed abortion in all cases, including after rape or incest. But on Tuesday, voters rejected the measure 58% to 42% — a loss in a state that is by some measures the nation's most conservative and religious.

"I would imagine that it caused some of the national movers and shakers to sit up and take notice, because they probably considered Mississippi a slam-dunk," said Marty Wiseman, a political scientist at Mississippi State University. "For it to fail in Mississippi certainly raises questions as to just where this thing could pass."

Abortion rights groups immediately described the defeat as a momentum-killer for Personhood USA, the group that tried and failed to get voter approval for similar amendments in its home state of Colorado in 2008 and 2010. The group is working to get initiatives on the ballot in states including California, Nevada, Ohio, Montana, Florida and Oregon next year.

"Even in a conservative state, tonight's vote reaffirms that people do not want government intruding in personal decisions best made by a woman, her family and her doctor," Jennifer Dalven of the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement.

"Legislators around the country should listen to the voters of Mississippi and stop playing politics with women's health," she added.

But Keith Mason, Personhood USA's president, said that even in defeat, the measure had strengthened the movement, prompting thousands of people to flock to the group's website offering to volunteer for efforts around the country.

"This may be a discouragement to some," Mason said in an interview Wednesday. "But for others, it is an encouragement to fight."

Many supporters of the personhood movement are frustrated by what they see as the incremental moves by antiabortion groups to pass laws making abortions more difficult to obtain, or to change the makeup of the Supreme Court by electing sympathetic lawmakers.

But some leading antiabortion activists have feared that a successful state personhood amendment would be struck down by the federal courts, perhaps with new rulings that would aid the abortion rights cause.

James Bopp Jr., an attorney and antiabortion activist, has argued that efforts to ban abortions in "hard" cases — including rape, incest, fetal deformity and harm to the mother — are doomed to fail, because they lack popular support.

In Mississippi, opponents noted repeatedly that the initiative would ban such abortions. They also asserted that it would cause other "unintended medical and legal consequences," including a ban on certain forms of birth control pills, hampering in vitro fertilization treatments, and the emergence of new legal hazards for doctors trying to save mothers' lives during problem pregnancies.

Opponents called those claims lies and scare tactics.

Wiseman, the political scientist, said the bill was probably killed off by Mississippi women who were generally antiabortion, but felt the initiative "covered way too much territory for them."

richard.fausset@latimes.com

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