Mississippi debates personhood in abortion battle

A ballot initiative in Mississippi could raise the stakes in the acrimonious American abortion debate. Proposition 26 affirms that personhood begins at conception. It seeks to add the following sentence to the state constitution: “The term ‘person’ or ‘persons’ shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the functional equivalent thereof.”

Its supporters want to use it to stop abortions. Its opponents claim that it will turn the death of any zygote into murder. In the words of the New York Times:

“[It] 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,’ which prevent fertilized eggs from implanting in the uterus. It would also outlaw the destruction of embryos created in laboratories.”

Political observers predict that Proposition 26 will succeed on November 8, since the  pro-life movement has bipartisan support in Mississippi. The Republican candidate for governor is co-chairman of the Proposition 26 campaign and the Democrat candidate has declared that he will support it. A similar initiative failed in Colorado in 2008 and 2010 but its backers sense that the idea will catch on in more conservative states. Success could spark similar initiatives in Florida, Michigan, Montana, Ohio, Wisconsin and other states.

The measure is radically different from anti-abortion laws which gradually restrict the scope of abortion, but without challenging Roe vs. Wade directly. A personhood amendment strikes at the heart of Roe vs. Wade by asserting that humanity begins at conception and not when the foetus becomes viable.

And this is why important pro-life groups do not support Proposition 26. Fundamentally they agree, but they fear that it is a grave strategic error. James Bopp Jr, of National Right to Life, told the New York Times: “From the standpoint of protecting unborn lives it’s utterly futile 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.” The Catholic bishop of Jackson, Mississippi, Joseph Latino, says “the push for a state amendment could ultimately harm our efforts to overturn Roe vs. Wade.”

Supporters of the amendment are more hopeful. They believe that the US Supreme Court might endorse the personhood of the embryo and that a win in Mississippi could galvanise a nationwide movement. ~ New York Times, Oct 25

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