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Originally published Friday, November 4, 2011 at 10:02 PM

Vote would give a fertilized egg 'personhood'

A rebel anti-abortion movement is hoping for its first electoral victory Tuesday, when Mississippi voters will decide whether to designate a fertilized egg as a person and potentially label its destruction as murder.

The Washington Post

quotes It's not surprising that Mississippians would believe protoplasm is a person, they've... Read more
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A rebel anti-abortion movement gaining momentum nationwide is hoping for its first electoral victory Tuesday, when Mississippi voters will decide whether to designate a fertilized egg as a person and potentially label its destruction an act of murder.

If approved, the nation's first "personhood" amendment could criminalize abortion and limit in-vitro fertilization and some forms of birth control. It also would give a jolt of energy to a national movement that views mainstream anti-abortion activists as timid.

"They've just taken an incremental approach," said Les Riley, founder of Personhood Mississippi and a self-described tractor salesman and father of 10 who initiated the state's effort. "We're just going to the heart of the matter, which is: Is this a person or not? God says it is, and science has confirmed it."

"Abortion" doesn't appear in the ballot initiative. Instead, voters will decide whether to amend the state constitution to redefine "person" to include "every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the equivalent thereof." That change would cut off access to abortion by equating it with homicide, making no exception for rape, incest or when a woman's life is in danger.

Activists on both sides agree the measure will likely pass and spark years of litigation that may stall or prevent its implementation.

"Life-at-conception" ballot initiatives in other parts of the country, including Colorado last year, have failed amid concerns about their far-reaching, and in some cases unforeseeable, implications.

But proponents of the amendment say they are more confident of victory in Mississippi, a Bible Belt state where anti-abortion sentiment runs high and the laws governing the procedure are so strict that just one abortion clinic exists.

Opponents of the measure, including Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), have eroded support for it by casting it more broadly as an infringement on women's health and an example of government overreach.

Like backers of the initiative, dubbed "MS 26," they have turned out at college football games to distribute literature and spend weekday evenings working phone banks.

"A lot of people think this is just about abortion, but it's not about abortion," said Valencia Robinson, an abortion-rights and AIDS activist in Jackson, who spent Friday knocking on doors. "It's bad for women's health, it's bad for our economy, and my strongest point is, it's just government intrusion in our personal lives."

The measure has broad support that stretches across party lines, with the Republican and Democratic gubernatorial candidates voicing support for it. The Democrat, Johnny DuPree, however, has expressed concern about how it would affect birth control and in-vitro fertilization.

For years, the strategy favored by conservative activists nationally has been to gradually decrease access to abortion by cutting government funding and imposing restrictions, such as requiring women to view ultrasound images before the procedure.

The aim has been to reduce abortions while awaiting a mix of justices on the U.S. Supreme Court that would be inclined to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion.

Indeed, states have passed 84 laws restricting abortion access in 2011, the most of any year, Guttmacher Institute data show. Only four states had higher teen-pregnancy rates than Mississippi in 2005, the most recent year for which data are available, according to the institute.

An energized group of activists has grown impatient with the go-slow approach. These activists oppose abortion even in cases of rape and incest. Some also oppose making exceptions to save the life of the mother, saying that both lives are equal and doctors do not have the right to save one over the other.

Personhood efforts are under way in more than a dozen states, including Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and Ohio. The growing movement views its approach as an answer to the Roe decision, which concluded that under the 14th Amendment, "person" does not apply to the unborn. "If this suggestion of personhood is established," Justice Harry Blackmun wrote in the opinion, the abortion-rights advocate's case "collapses, for the fetus' right to life would then be guaranteed specifically by the Amendment."

Rebecca Kiessling, spokeswoman for Personhood USA, said: "I see that as a directive from the court that says, 'Look, if you want to protect unborn children, you'd better recognize them as persons in the full legal sense.' " Kiessling, an attorney, is the product of rape; her mother tried twice to obtain back-alley abortions before giving her daughter up for adoption. She has become a sought-after speaker since writing a pamphlet, "Conceived in Rape."

Many legal experts say the activists are misinterpreting Blackmun's language, and the Mississippi measure likely would not stand up in court. If upheld, it could trigger a variety of difficult questions, including whether a woman with cancer would be prevented from receiving chemotherapy if it could kill her fetus.

A statement from the Mississippi Medical Association said the measure's reach would go beyond abortion access. Unintended consequences, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says, may include criminal prosecution of women who miscarry or use contraception and of doctors who administer lifesaving treatment to women with abnormal pregnancies or disease.

Some experts also say the legal approach could backfire, forcing the courts into making a decision unfavorable to anti-abortion activists. That concern has led to skepticism from more established anti-abortion groups, including the Eagle Forum, which opposed Colorado's personhood initiative last year, warning that "its vague language would enable more mischief by judges."

Material from Bloomberg News is included in this report.

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