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Ballot defeat

Abortion | A personhood initiative fails in Mississippi, but a pro-life group vows to continue the fight

More than 55 percent of Mississippi voters rejected a ballot initiative Tuesday that would have legally defined life as beginning at fertilization. Despite this defeat, Personhood USA, the pro-life group that fought for this ballot measure, vowed to continue pushing for similar personhood initiatives in other states.

"We are prepared for a long journey," said the group's Keith Ashley in a statement Wednesday morning. "Personhood USA understands that changing a culture-and changing a country-will not happen with one election, and so it is not unexpected."

The group has mounted efforts to place similar initiatives on 2012 ballots in California, Florida, Montana, Nevada, Ohio, and Oregon. In Mississippi, Amendment 26 to the state constitution would have had defined a person as including "every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the functional equivalent thereof." Colorado voters defeated similar proposals there in 2008 and 2010.

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Ultimately, a successful personhood initiative such as the ones proposed in Mississippi and Colorado would prompt a legal challenge. Such a court challenge likely would reach the U.S. Supreme Court and result in the current justices having to reexamine Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.

The Mississippi effort seemed to have wide, bipartisan support: both Republican and Democratic candidates for governor and attorney general favored the measure.

But Planned Parenthood-sponsored ads pushed claims that Amendment 26 would ban contraception, in vitro fertilization, and birth control.

Popular outgoing Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a pro-life Republican, initially wavered in his support. "I believe life begins at conception," Barbour told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger before the vote. "Unfortunately, this personhood amendment doesn't say that."

Barbour eventually voted for the amendment, but according to the Associated Press, he maintained that "some very strongly pro-life people have raised questions about the ambiguity and about the actual consequences-whether there are unforeseen, unintended consequences."

A prominent Catholic bishop in the state also issued a statement that neither supported nor opposed the initiative.

But those in favor of Amendment 26 said it would have protected human embryos from the moment of conception. Supporters also said it would not have banned in vitro fertilization or contraception.

"Personhood USA firmly believes that our campaign fell victim to the outright lies of our opposition, and because of their lies, children will continue to be murdered in Mississippi," wrote Personhood USA's Ashley.

Planned Parenthood used the initiative fight to crank up its fundraising. The group's president, Cecile Richards, wrote a fundraising letter arguing that "this ballot initiative is about more than just one state. Anti-choice activists hope that a win in Mississippi will lead to a national movement."

Planned Parenthood made an unsuccessful attempt last year to kill the Mississippi personhood effort before it even reached voters. But Mississippi's Supreme Court rejected the Planned Parenthood suit.

"We mourn with heaven tonight over the loss of Initiative 26, which would have provided the hope of life for thousands of God's unborn babies in Mississippi," said Jimmy Porter, director of the Mississippi Baptist Convention's Christian Action Commission.

Listen to a report on the defeat of the Personhood initiative in Mississippi on WORLD's radio news magazine The World and Everything in It.

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee teaches journalism at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and is the associate dean of the World Journalism Institute.


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