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Mississippi’s Road to “Personhood”

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Tomorrow, Mississippi voters will head to the polls to decide on Initiative 26, also known as the “personhood” amendment. The bill, if it passes, “would amend the Mississippi Constitution to define the word ‘person’ or ‘persons’ … to include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the functional equivalent thereof.”

In effect, it would make it impossible for a woman to have an abortion, and could make it difficult to obtain certain types of birth control, including the morning-after pill and IUDs. In vitro fertilization and how doctors handle ectopic pregnancies could also be affected. For a few perspectives on the ballot initiative and how it could change Mississippi’s medical landscape, listen to this recent episode of NPR’s On Point.

More than five years ago, FRONTLINE visited Mississippi for our film The Last Abortion Clinic to report on the changing tactics used by some of the state’s pro-life activists. Distancing themselves from the vitriolic, confrontational and sometimes violent abortion protesters of the 1980s and early ’90s, groups like Pro-Life Mississippi instead focused their efforts on legislative lobbying, passing state laws that made it increasingly difficult for a woman to get an abortion.

Initiative 26 is a bit different: Instead of requiring an abortion clinic to comply with building regulations, or requiring a woman to have an ultrasound — the incremental approach seen in the film — it “aims to sidestep existing legal battles” relating to these smaller issues by changing the state’s constitution entirely, explains The New York Times.

This tactical divide, explains The Washington Post’s Sarah Kliff, is something that pro-life advocates nationwide will be watching closely in the aftermath of the Mississippi vote:

[The] incremental approach has frustrated the more aggressive activists who’ve embraced the personhood movement, which takes a more ideological approach to the issue: abortion is immoral, and leaves no space for small changes around the edges. …

While Colorado has voted on the issue, a half-dozen efforts to force votes on personhood amendments have failed to gain enough signatures for a spot on a state ballot. If the Mississippi ballot passes — and this poll [PDF] suggests it very well could — it will be an unprecedented success for the more aggressive wing of the anti-abortion movement.

Some pro-life advocates, including some religious leaders, have spoken out against personhood amendments, and the Times writes that “National Right to Life and the Roman Catholic bishops have refused to promote it charging that the tactic is reckless and could backfire, leading to a Supreme Court defeat that would undermine progress in carving away at Roe v. Wade.”

But Terri Herring — the Mississippi activist featured in our film who is now the national director of Pro-Life America and a proponent of Initiative 26 — told CNN that the vote is an opportunity for her state to lead the way: “We may have been behind on civil rights, but we can be ahead on human rights, and that’s what personhood is really all about.”

As you follow the news of tomorrow’s vote, take a look back at The Last Abortion Clinic, a small portion of which is posted above, to better understand how we got to this point.

The film also takes a close look at the challenges facing Mississippi’s last abortion clinic, in Jackson, and a clinic in a nearby state that serves Mississippi residents. The owner, who asked not to be named, told us she’s deeply concerned about the women who want an abortion but can’t access the procedure:

It’s funny, because a lot of people think that it’s just so sad, so tragic when women have an abortion. But you know what is even more tragic is when women can’t access an abortion. The women that we see here that really suffer in this clinic are the women who are too far for us and that have no recourse. That’s the really sad case.

The film also spends time with a nurse midwife in a rural area of the state, where, in 2005, infant mortality was almost two times the national average and 75 percent of children were born to single mothers, many of whom were teenagers.

To explore more, read our collection of interviews with strategists on all sides of the legal battleground.

Update [Nov. 9, 2011]: Yesterday, Mississippi voters rejected Initiative 26, although Personhood USA claims they’ll be pursuing ballot initiatives in six other states — and possibly again in Mississippi — in the future.

Bonus: Take a look at Columbia Journalism School’s “What’s Fair in a Video World?,” a case study on reporting The Last Abortion Clinic.

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