Miss. Voters Turn Down Personhood Initiative

Mississippi voters rejected a constitutional amendment that would have declared life begins at fertilization.
by , | November 9, 2011

With the whole nation watching, Mississippi voters decided Tuesday to reject a constitutional amendment that defines a person's life as beginning at the moment of fertilization.

The measure failed 58-42, according to the Associated Press, with 1803 of 1876 precincts reporting. Jonathan Will, an assistant professor at the Mississippi College School of Law, tells Governing that the results are likely a "setback" for the personhood movement, which had been hoping a conservative state like Mississippi would provide a first positive step in a fight intended to end up in the Supreme Court.

Ambiguity about the law's applicability was a possible source of discomfort for Mississippi voters, Will says, as the amendment was vague about whether life began at conception or fertilization proper. That difference of about two weeks could have had a major impact on forms of birth control like the morning-after pill, he explains.

Despite the defeat, the personhood movement will continue, Jennifer Mason, communications director at Personhood USA, which engineered the Mississippi initiative, tells Governing. She expects personhood measures to appear on the ballot in 11 states in 2012. She also anticipates another push in Mississippi.

"We'll absolutely do it again," Mason says. "Human lives are on the line."

If the amendment had passed, its ramifications would have been complex and difficult to predict, Will says. It would have likely been challenged before the state supreme court. The Mississippi Supreme Court had postponed hearing a case on the initiative's constitutionality, opting instead to wait until after the vote, a case which is now moot. Once questions of standing were resolved, either from a woman seeking an abortion or a clinic that performs them would have been probable plaintiffs, Will explains.

It also would have been uncertain if the amendment was "self-executing," Will says. Would prosecutors have begun notifying clinics that perform abortions their actions were considered illegal? If not, it would have been up to state legislators to amend the criminal code so persons, as defined by the newly adopted amendment, would be protected.

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