An interview with one of the leaders of the "personhood" movement, which aims to outlaw abortion in the U.S. starting with Tuesday's vote in Mississippi
Jennifer Mason, a 28-year-old mother of three, has been an anti-abortion activist for 12 years. She serves as the communications director for Denver-based Personhood USA, a national organization founded by her husband that backs Mississippi's ballot initiative to declare that life begins at conception. The group, which was originally formed to support similar, failed initiatives in Colorado in 2008 and 2010, hopes to get such measures passed across the country. By decreeing that a fertilized human egg is a person with full rights, the Mississippi amendment would outlaw all abortions except those necessary to save the mother's life; critics contend it would also ban birth control pills. Despite vigorous opposition from Planned Parenthood and other abortion-rights advocates, most observers expect the initiative to pass when Mississippi voters go to the polls Tuesday.
The following interview with Mason is the first Friday Interview, a new weekly series of Atlantic Politics Channel Q-and-As. The interview has been condensed and edited.
Q: What's your response to the concern that this measure would ban some types of birth control, including not just the morning after pill but also IUDs and birth control pills, which sometimes work not by stopping eggs from being fertilized but by preventing fertilized eggs from implanting in the uterine wall?
Jennifer Mason, Personhood USA: The simple answer to that is that this amendment does not mention eggs, or birth control, or [in vitro fertilization]. It only says that every human being is a person. If you take a pill that is intended to kill a child, that will be illegal. Contraception would not be illegal and it would not be illegal to prevent pregnancy. IVF would not be illegal but it would be illegal to terminate or kill a baby conceived by IVF.
If there is a birth control pill that does kill a child, I think we have a right to know that what it does is kill a baby and cause an abortion. I haven't seen any scientific evidence about that. If there were scientific evidence that the birth-control pill did in fact cause abortion, I think there would be an uproar in this country among women who never knew they were taking a pill to kill a child.
Once the sperm hits the egg, it's not an egg anymore. It's a new human being with its own DNA. It has a hair color and eye color. It has a gender. Most people don't know that.
The term "fertilized egg" is a made-up term. There is no stage of human development called "fertilized egg." It's used primarily by Planned Parenthood and our opponents, we believe they use it because it sounds a lot less human -- it sounds like an egg. In Mississippi they're putting up billboards with a picture of a carton of chicken eggs saying this is what Amendment 26 is about. It's not about chicken eggs, it's not about human eggs, it's about human beings. There is no class of human beings that are not people.
Q: What do you say to the criticism that this measure would force rape victims to bear their attacker's child?
A: This is another one of our opponents' talking points. I'm comfortable talking about rape. One of our spokespeople is a woman who was conceived through rape. She's thankful to be alive, and her mother is thankful she couldn't have an abortion.
On the [Mississippi campaign] Yes on 26 YouTube channel there's also a woman who was raped who regrets her abortion. Abortion does not make it better. It's an act of violence against a woman and a child. Rape is an act of violence and it's certainly a tragedy, but I don't think a second act of violence will make it better.
Q: Have you had conversations with some of the pro-life groups that are worried this will backfire for the anti-abortion movement by giving the Supreme Court an opportunity to reaffirm the central holdings of Roe v. Wade?
A: When we first started a lot of groups were hesitant, but a lot of them have now jumped on board and gotten involved. From all I've seen we've gotten overwhelming support from the pro-life movement.
Q: What about the concern that this measure could make things harder for opponents of abortion in America?
A: The answer to that is simple. There's already an abortion super-right in this country. We're trying to end abortion and we're going to keep trying to do the right thing. I don't think the abortion situation can get any worse in America.
Q: You talk about the testimony of women who regret their abortions, but aren't there a lot of women who have had abortions and never live to regret it? Isn't their testimony just as valid?
A: I can honestly say I've never met one. I've spoken at pro-life and pro-choice forums and I've never heard a woman say 'I'm so glad I had an abortion.' One time I did hear that, and a few years she came back to me and told me she was sorry. I've never heard anybody say they regret having their baby, ever. I've never heard anybody say they wish they had an abortion instead.
Q: Why do you think women have abortions?
A: [Supporters of abortion rights] list a lot of reasons, economic reasons, social reasons. In my experience, women who have abortions often believe they have no other choice. I personally have witnessed at abortion clinics women coerced by boyfriends or family members to have abortions. I saw one who said it was because she thought she wouldn't fit into her prom dress. It can be serious but it can also be so capricious. It's so available.
A lot of times they just don't know what is available to them and how many organizations are willing to help them and adopt their baby. I personally, if any woman said it would keep her from having an abortion, I would adopt the baby in a second. To save a life there are millions of people in this country who would do the same.
Q: How do you like your chances on Tuesday?
A: You don't really know with a campaign until election day, but we feel pretty confident. I haven't seen any public polling. In our internal polls it's been polling favorably over the past several weeks and we don't expect that to change. But we've been burned by polls before -- in Colorado we were polling several points higher than what actually occurred. We've learned that no matter what the polls say, you have to work hard and get out the vote. But we have such overwhelming support in Mississippi from both Democrat and Republican candidates there -- I don't think that's ever happened before. We had a press conference [this week] with tons of doctors. We've never seen such broad-based support.
Q: Where did the idea for this approach come from?
A: In 1973 [during the arguments for] Roe vs. Wade, Justice Potter Stewart said if the case for personhood was established, the whole argument for abortion would fall apart. If we discovered that the child in the womb was a person and had personhood rights the case for abortion would collapse. Well, we know a lot more scientifically than we did in 1973. Geneticists have determined that life begins at conception. We know that child in the womb is a person from conception, so why not exploit that loophole that was put in Roe v. Wade? Because we know that is the case. We know that child is a person and does have a right to live.
Q: How did you get involved with this cause?
A: Keith Mason, my husband, is one of the founders of Personhood USA. For years my husband and I have been touring the United States, going to college campuses to tell young women that abortion is not the only choice -- there's also adoption or you can keep the baby. The group was called Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust. It was pretty small but it still has quite an impact and they're still doing it.
For me personally, I grew up knowing my mother had had an abortion. The way it was explained to me was that I had another brother or sister who was in heaven, and my mother would always break down and start crying and tell me how much she deeply regretted her abortion and would do anything in the world to change it if she could.
Then in Colorado, we heard about [the personhood ballot initiative] on the radio and decided to get involved. Once we lost here we just knew this is the right thing to do and we needed to continue with the personhood message. We have efforts going on in all 50 states right now. Generally people in a state will contact us and we will help them start a steering committee. Mississippi is a perfect example. We are a human rights advocacy organization, and we're here to support state groups as they get started and decide to do personhood in their state.
Q: Assuming you win in Mississippi, what's next?
A: Mississippi will be one step of a huge process of recognizing the personhood rights of babies. Of course, we would be thrilled to win our first victory, but we have a long road ahead of us. We don't know what court challenges will happen and we need to make sure Mississippi gets to keep that vote and hold onto it. And then the goal is to get this passed in every state.
We currently have people gathering signatures in Montana and Florida. We've filed [ballot] language in Ohio, Nevada and California. And we will be filing soon in Colorado, Arkansas, Oklahoma, North Dakota and Nebraska. Potentially, we could be on the ballot in all of those states in 2012.
Image credit: Lucas Jackson/Reuters