Mississippi voters may have rejected ‘personhood amendment’

2011-11-09 09:16

Miami – Voters in Mississippi appear to have rejected a proposed anti-abortion amendment to the state Constitution that reignited debate on the hot-button issue ahead of the 2012 elections.

The so-called “personhood amendment,” which would have granted rights to an embryo from the moment of conception and could have criminalised abortion, was similar to a measure rejected twice by voters in the state of Colorado.

Official results have yet to be released, but late yesterday the “no” vote for the initiative had a double-digit lead with 60% of precincts reporting, according to the website of Mississippi’s Clarion-Ledger newspaper.

Initiative 26, which had the support of the Republican and Democratic candidates for governor, would have recognised embryos in the Bible Belt state as people with full rights and protections under the law.

It would have made abortion illegal – even in the case of rape and incest – and could have forbidden other birth control methods as well.

The measure reads: “Should the term ‘person’ be defined to include every human being from the moment of fertilisation, cloning, or the functional equivalent thereof?”

Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chair of the Democratic National Committee, welcomed the apparent defeat of the initiative, which she called “a dangerous and divisive measure that would restrict a woman’s right to choose even in cases of rape, incest and life of the mother”.

“It would highly restrict or even end most infertility treatments, and it would go as far as outlawing many forms of birth control,” she added.

Republican Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour cast his vote in favour, via an absentee ballot on Friday.

“I think all in all, I know I believe life begins at conception. So I think the right thing to do was to vote for it,” Barbour said.

Patrick Vaughn, from the conservative American Family Association, had anticipated the measure would pass, saying: “Everybody knows, you learn it at high school biology, that human life begins when the sperm and the egg unite.”

Supporters are preparing similar initiatives for the states of Florida, Ohio and South Dakota, to be placed on the November 2012 ballot.

The right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy has been law in the US since the Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 Roe v Wade ruling.

Fifty-one percent of the public considers abortion morally wrong, versus 39% who consider it morally acceptable, according to a May Gallup poll.

Forty-nine percent of those surveyed consider themselves “pro-choice”, while 45% consider themselves “pro-life”, or in favour of limits or a total ban on abortion.

“Personhood is the key to all human rights,” said Keith Mason, president of Personhood USA. “We believe that by legally changing the definition of what a person is, it can undermine Roe v Wade and outlaw abortion.”

The Mississippi State Medical Association stressed that while it was not taking sides on the matter, it could not support the amendment because it would “limit the physician’s options and deter use of common lifesaving procedures”.

“The common procedures we use now could be interpreted as murder or wrongful death if Proposal 26 passes,” the association said.

Outside a polling station in Jackson, voter Regina Madison (45) was hopeful the initiative would pass.

“I’m proud to vote today for the constitutional amendment that simply says that the baby has the legal rights of a person from the very beginning, from conception,” she said.

“This is the first step for a national fight: abortion would not be legal in this country.”

States considering similar measures could see an uptick in Republicans – who tend to be pro-life – voting at the polls, affecting local races and perhaps even the presidential vote.

Bioethics and legal scholar Paul Lombardo, a professor at the University of Virginia and Georgia State University, said ahead of the vote that the “radical” Mississippi measure could have wide-ranging legal repercussions.

The amendment “would have an extraordinary impact on many features of the law, and it would also make things like birth control potentially criminal”, he told AFP.

Lynn Paltrow, who heads a group called National Advocates for Pregnant Women, warned ahead of the vote that the measure “is likely to hurt all pregnant women” by denying their “constitutional personhood”.

“It’s turning pregnant women into a different class of person,” she wrote.

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