What Happens If the Mississippi Personhood Amendment Passes?

The latest state abortion measure is extremely broad, and it will likely come down to a close vote on Tuesday

MS 26 - AP Photo:Rogelio V. Solis - banner.jpg

Mississippi voters today are casting ballots for and against Constitutional Initiative 26, the so-called "personhood" amendment to the state constitution seeking to define life "to include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the equivalent thereof." Opponents of the measure warn it would outlaw not only abortion but several forms of birth control, plunging one of America's poorest and least-educated states back into the 1950s on the reproductive rights front and opening a pathway for other states to completely outlaw abortion. A close vote is expected and controversy over the measure has reached such a pitch in the state that Mississippi governor Haley Barbour said that "despite concerns" he'd cast an absentee ballot in favor of the measure last Thursday.

But even if the initiative passes today, it's unlikely that anything will change too quickly on the ground in Mississippi, where there is only one operating abortion clinic in the state. The Center for Reproductive Rights has pledged to file suit against the amendment immediately and expects the courts to issue an injunction against it because it "clearly violates the Constitution," according to group President Nancy Northup.

CRR remains optimistic that the broadly-worded measure, which is similar to two failed ballot initiatives in Colorado, will be defeated in the vote today. But if it isn't, says Northup, she expects it to be struck down. "It violates the Constitution and violates rights guaranteed in this country," she said, "including the right to privacy for women who want to make choices about contraception and reproduction."

But proponents of the measure say they've pressed forward anticipating a federal lawsuit -- and local injunction -- against it. Roberto Garcia-Jones, a legal analyst for the measure's main sponsor, Personhood USA, insists that the amendment won't go as far as its opponents say it does toward banning either abortion or birth control methods. Garcia-Jones argues because the ballot initiative only defines "personhood" within the context of existing laws and doesn't contain any provisions for enforcement or changes to existing laws, a lawsuit against the measure, if it passes, would be premature. Instead, Garcia-Jones says, a yes vote on 26 would free up Mississippi's legislature to make laws against abortion that carry penalties -- laws that he believes would pass quickly. "The legislature [in Mississippi] is very much in favor of it," Garcia-Jones says. The Mississippi legislature will pass "abortion-targeted legislation," he predicts, and leave birth control formally alone.

Northup remains skeptical of such arguments. "We have no intention of trusting the legal analysis of the initiative supporters," she says, "We're not going to take a risk that this is a meaningless provision."

Personhood USA has been relying on legal advice from the Liberty Counsel, a religious legal nonprofit closely affiliated with Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., according Liberty Counsel tax filings. Liberty Counsel general counsel Steve Crampton has been the lead attorney on defending Personhood's initiative in court thus far, successfully fending off the first round of challenges, filed in November 2008, against the measure from the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood and the ALCU argued that measure 26 violated Mississippi's state constitution, which explicitly states in Article III that amendments to its constitution cannot violate the Bill of Rights, and should not have been permitted to go to a vote. The Mississippi Supreme Court did not agree, and let the measure move forward.

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Kay Steiger is the managing editor of Raw Story.

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