Mississippi Personhood Amendment


Voiceover in video: Now we know, an unborn baby is a person. Mississipians! Vote Yes on 26…

TIM O’BRIEN, correspondent: Proponents insist Mississippi’s Amendment 26 is not so much about abortion as it is about the sanctity of human life.

BRAD PREWITT (“Yes on 26” Executive Director): We’re fighting for the preservation of the unborn in the state of Mississippi…

O’BRIEN: But if passed, the Amendment could make any abortion in the state murder, drawing the wrath of abortion rights advocates like Nancy Northup of the Center for Reproductive Rights.

NANCY NORTHUP (Center for Reproductive Rights): This measure is blatantly unconstitutional and we’ll be looking to stop it with the constitutional protections of the court.

O’BRIEN: Most birth control would still be allowed, but the Amendment could criminalize using the so-called “morning after pill” and put an end to embryonic stem cell research in the state.

post02-mississippi-personhoPREWITT: And we’ve stated unequivocally all along that if you’re intending to prevent a pregnancy, there is no problem with defining the personhood of the unborn. If you’re trying to end a pregnancy, then that’s another story.

O’BRIEN: Prewitt insists fertility treatment—in vitro fertilization—would not necessarily be banned, even though fertilized eggs are often discarded in the process.

PREWITT: That hit particularly close to home because I’m an IVF parent. And there’s nothing I would do as a leader of this campaign, uh, coalition, that would in any way seek to deny the joy that my wife, who’s a physician, and myself have had in our children.

O’BRIEN: It’s also unclear how the Amendment might be applied to ectopic or other dangerous pregnancies. There are, however, no exceptions for rape or incest. Without minimizing the horror of rape, supporters, including this rape victim, say abortion is not the answer.

Woman at podium: As a person who was raped and as a person who has had an abortion, I’m telling you that I’m am tired of using rape as an excuse. Who do we believe creates life? Did my rapist create the life inside of me? No. God Almighty created that life. (Applause) Do doctors and nurses in petri dishes create life? No! Jesus Christ creates life.

O’BRIEN: Amendment 26 has broad bi-partisan support in Mississippi and is expected to pass. Both the Democrat and Republican candidates for governor support it.

post03-mississippi-personhoThe Republican candidate, Phil Bryant—now the state’s lieutenant governor—is also a co-chairman of “Vote Yes on 26.”

LT. GOVERNOR PHIL BRYANT: (Speaking in recorded video) The Founding Fathers said that every American has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. On November the 8th, we’re going to give that right to every child in America, beginning in Mississippi. We’ll see ya at the polls.

Now what we say in the law is for convenience sake, without due process, you can take that child’s life. I don’t believe that’s right. I think this is going to be a point for us to establish a concept, and the concept will be the rights of all human beings, including the unborn.

O’BRIEN: There’s no question the objective of Amendment 26 is to stop abortion. Campaign literature says as much, calling Tuesday’s election an “…opportunity to cast the vote the U.S. Supreme Court did not [in Roe vs. Wade.] We can stop abortion by declaring the unborn “personsfrom the moment of conception.”

post01-mississippi-personhoNORTHUP: This is an alarming and extreme measure that should be taken seriously. What it does is reveal how extreme the anti-choice movement is in the United States. They would like to see the “personhood” of a fertilized egg in every single one of the fifty states.

O’BRIEN: This Amendment would appear to be squarely at odds with everything the Supreme Court has said about abortion. The Amendment itself may have a very short life. And what worries abortion opponents even more is that any resulting Court fight could possibly end up expanding the right to choose abortion, rather than restricting it.

That might be one reason the staunchly pro-life Catholic Church in Mississippi, is standing on the sidelines in this case. Bishop Joseph Latino of the Jackson diocese said in a statement, “The Roman Catholic Church and her bishops are unequivocally pro-life; however, we do not always publicly support every initiative that comes before us in the name of pro-life.

The National Right to Life Movement, which has launched some of the country’s biggest anti-abortion demonstrations, is also withholding support. It’s legal counsel, Jim Bopp, shares the objective of Amendment 26 but says the measure is doomed in the courts and could do more harm than good.

JIM BOPP (National Right to Life): The immediate harm from the adoption of the Amendment is that we have people who are spending time, money and effort pursuing what we think is a futile strategy.

post04-mississippi-personhoO’BRIEN: And there is uncertainty about how the Supreme Court might rule. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a supporter of abortion rights, is among the critics of Roe versus Wade, believing abortion should be protected under the right to equality, which is broadly identified in the Constitution, rather than under the right to privacy, which is ambiguous.

What if Ginsburg were to have the votes for a broad ruling finding abortion laws discriminate against women?

BOPP: If the right to abortion was reformulated in that way, it would mean that all the current restrictions on abortions that are saving perhaps a hundred thousand or more lives a year—parental notification, abortion funding restrictions, informed consent, waiting periods and all—would be struck down. So, losing is not risk-free.

O’BRIEN: This has raised a philosophical conundrum for at least some abortion opponents: Do you stand up for what you believe is right, even if it means a step back for the cause you passionately embrace?

LT. GOV. BRYANT: We believe that it may not be perfect, but don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good, and we believe this is a good place to start.

PREWITT: I think we have to have a long view of history. I’m a history major, I think long. And I think that it may be that we don’t taste success with these endeavors in our lifetimes. But perhaps the next generation will.

O’BRIEN: Prewitt and other supporters of the “Personhood Amendment” say the ultimate goal would be a federal constitutional amendment and see a victory at the polls here Tuesday as a possible first step.

For Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly, I’m Tim O’Brien in Jackson, Mississippi.

  • Amy

    So, the government is now getting bigger? Don’t think this is what most Americans want…according to Tea Party comments I keep reading. Seem at odds with this movement….

  • MrM

    There goes yet another civil liberty. Reproductive rights should NEVER be framed as an issue of life vs death. Instead, liberals/progressives should go out of their way to shift the debate as an issue of PRIVACY. It is nobody’s business — least of all Big Government’s– what goes on behind closed doors between a patient and her doctor.

  • Channah

    This is a shock? What would you expect from a bunch of evangelical Christians? Sorry. I have no respect for this kind of thinking.

  • Frederick C. Norton, Esq

    As the former President of the Right to Life Organization in Livingston, New Jersey, I wavered back and forth as to the wisdom of the Personhood Amendment until I read what Lt. Gov. Bryant said. “…[D]on’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good…” In addition, as a former seminarian for the Archdiocese of New York, I do not understand the reticence of Bishop Latino to support your efforts. What position would he have taken with reference to the Holocaust? Allow the continuation of the death camps in anticipation that at some future date the atrocities will stop? While we eat away at the crust of the pie, unborn children are being destroyed. My prayers are with you. Fred Norton, Livingston, New Jersey

  • Lifeisbeautiful

    Maybe you can explain why even though the eagle is no longer an endangered species, its eggs are still federally protected while they’re still in the mother eagle; once they are laid; through the 35-day incubation period and beyond through hatching. In fact, even the nonliving eagle egg shell is protected by the federal law. We’re talking a $100,000 fine! Shouldn’t a human baby have at least the same protection under the law?

  • JDE

    More evidence we’re living in a conservative Christian hegemony.

  • Channah

    One sign says ”the Audacity of love for all our children”. Fine and dandy. Who of you will take care of these children, feed and clothe them, educate them and give them the feeling of love….take them into their homes to raise when no one else can do a good job? Maybe 1%? Or, even that? You do all the talking, but you do not do the follow-up.

  • Paul Hesson

    Will the state of Mississippi provide welfare for the care of all of the left over fertilized eggs in IVF facilities?
    Will the IVF persons be able to inherit property?
    Will the IVF persons be included in the census?
    What legal rights will the left over IVF persons have?
    Will The IVF facilities become Mississippi’s largest orphanage?

  • Bebe99

    If ‘pro-life’ groups had chosen to make their focus on preventing unwanted pregnancy instead of stopping abortion they could have had a very positive effect on the country and people’s lives after these 35 years of political activity. Do they promote birth control? No. Do they promote comprehensive sex education? No. Do they promote mother/child health programs? No. They just want abortion to stop, but they don’t care about why people get abortions. I don’t know if their real goal is to promote their personal faith through legislation, or if there is some kind of desire to make people suffer for their non-marital sex by forcing them to have children. But in standing up for fetuses and ignoring the real needs of women and infants, their efforts as Christians are mere hypocrisy. And a complete waste of time, money and effort.

  • Dave

    The absolutist argument against abortion (including the one used to support the proposed Mississippi law) has essentially two assumptions or premises, an ethical claim and a factual claim: the ethical claim is that it’s always immoral to intentionally and directly kill an innocent person; the factual claim is that the human embryo or fetus is a person from the moment of conception. And so a conclusion that abortion is always wrong logically follows from those premises. Those claims together also rule out using contragestive drugs like Plan B or devices like the IUD, which prevent an embryo from implanting in a uterus, and they prohibit creating embryos in vitro if there’s a good chance that they’ll be frozen indefinitely and never be implanted in a woman, or if they’re intended solely for research. (The Catholic Church also opposes in vitro fertilization even if every embryo created that way is immediately implanted in a woman’s uterus; and it opposes contraception and sterilization for the same underlying reasons.)

    But let’s look closely at each of the key assumptions in the absolutist argument. (Even if the argument is valid, it won’t be a sound argument if one of the premises is false.) The moral rule against intentionally killing innocent persons seems initially to be a very solid claim. But should it have absolute status? Is it always wrong to kill innocent persons directly and intentionally?

    There are at least two kinds of tragic situations that lead me to conclude that the rule is not absolute: first, certain cases of active euthanasia where someone might be dying of a terminal illness, and nothing short of rendering them unconscious or dead can alleviate a degree of suffering that they find unbearable; and second, incidents where abortion is necessary to save the mother’s life, even if we regard the embryo or fetus as a person—that can be seen as killing in self-defense, even though the fetus obviously has no intention to kill its mother, unlike most other cases of self-defense. So in at least some euthanasia and abortion situations, killing an innocent person might be the right thing to do all things considered.

    By contrast, not only does the Vatican oppose abortion even when needed to save the mother’s life, that policy is mandated for every Catholic hospital in the U.S., according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in its “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services,” 2009. A nun in Phoenix was excommunicated by her bishop last year for approving a life-saving abortion performed in a Catholic hospital. (Michael Clancy, “Nun at St. Joseph’s Hospital Rebuked over Abortion to Save Woman,” Arizona Republic, 19 May 2010.)

    Some countries like El Salvador have gone so far as to incorporate this policy into law, criminalizing all abortions; so if a Salvadoran woman today has a back-alley abortion and is seriously injured by it, if she then goes to the hospital to save her life, and the doctors or nurses then report a suspected abortion to the police, which they’re required to do, the woman can be arrested and handcuffed to her hospital bed. And if she survives, she can be tried and imprisoned for several years. It sounds like an Orwellian vision or a Margaret Atwood novel, but such things can and do occur today in several countries that prohibit abortion in all circumstances, and would be likely under any law like the one proposed for MIssissippi. (On the situation in El Salvador, see Jack Hitt, “Pro-Life Nation,” New York Times Magazine, 9 April 2006.)

    But returning to the absolutist moral argument against abortion, there also turn out to be fatal problems with the factual claim that the human embryo is a person from the moment of conception. To show this, I’ll start in a place that might seem odd in this context, the criterion that almost all of us accept in declaring a person to be dead: brain death, or more precisely, whole-brain death. You probably know that someone who’s declared brain-dead may still have a beating heart if their breathing is sustained by a mechanical ventilator in a hospital. In cases of organ transplantation, the vast majority of us don’t believe that taking organs from a brain-dead individual is what kills that individual. We’re on very solid ground in saying that persons die when their brains are no longer capable of sustaining any sort of conscious experience. Some of us may be uncomfortable thinking that the soul is nothing more than the mind, but surely if the mind is no longer present, and can’t be fired up again in the brain that’s been its home, the soul has “departed,” the person is gone. Personhood requires at least a brain that can generate conscious experience. Even those who affirm the “sanctity of life” would not want to wait until every last cell of a person’s body decomposed before declaring them dead.

    Now let’s go back to the view that a human embryo is a person from conception. Often that view is grounded in a religious belief that “ensoulment” occurs at conception. But of course there is no functioning brain present at conception; there aren’t even any neural cells present that might eventually form a working brain. In early embryos there are only undifferentiated cells, and even after neurons start forming it takes months for them to connect with one another in ways that make conscious experience possible. Those who claim nonetheless that ensoulment occurs at conception cannot explain how that soul would ever have any connection to the brain, and thus how our daily conscious experience would have any relationship to our own soul.

    So when does the fetal brain develop sufficiently to make consciousness possible? This is a subject of debate even today among neuroscientists, and may never be possible to pinpoint. But the best estimates I’ve read indicate that neural cells in the fetal brain finally form enough synaptic connections to enable consciousness around 24 to 26 weeks gestation, about the same time when the fetus becomes possibly viable. (A normal pregnancy lasts 40 weeks.) Therefore, since a capacity for consciousness is a necessary condition for personhood, it makes no sense to regard human embryos or fetuses as persons prior to acquiring a capacity for consciousness; before then, nobody’s “home”; and no abortions performed prior to that stage can plausibly be condemned as the killing of persons. (For a more thorough treatment of these points, see Bonnie Steinbock, Life before Birth: The Moral and Legal Status of Embyros and Fetuses, 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 2011.)

    But when are abortions typically performed in this country? It turns out that over 99% of all abortions in the U.S. occur before fetal consciousness is possible; 62% occur in the first 9 weeks gestation, 88% in the first 12 weeks. (Guttmacher Institute, “Facts on Induced Abortion in the United States,” August 2011, at http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/fb_induced_abortion.html.)

    And even among the remaining 1%, many have compelling moral justification, such as when the life or health of the mother is seriously at risk. In other cases the fetus may develop a devastating condition like anencephaly, which precludes consciousness and would not permit it to live even if it were allowed to be born, so even late abortion in that instance would not equate to killing a person. Other abortions can involve fetuses with devastating genetic diseases like Tay-Sachs, which causes neurological degeneration and suffering beginning soon after birth, and typically kills children within the first five years of life. Abortions are sometimes chosen by women who believe that living in such a condition would be worse for their child than never being born.

    I’m very sympathetic to those situations, even though late-term abortions performed in order to prevent dire suffering to the fetus resemble active euthanasia, which is illegal outside of these particular abortion contexts. I’m also so troubled by the thought of Salvadoran women being prosecuted and jailed for having abortions or conspiracy to commit abortion, that even though I consider sentient fetuses to be persons with considerable moral status, I think it would be a mistake to criminalize any instance of abortion performed with the woman’s informed consent.

    - Dr. David Perry, Professor of Applied Ethics, and Director of the Vann Center for Ethics, Davidson College

  • Tim

    I am a minor and I have been in foster care my whole life and if I ever had a child and knew it would end up in the same system I’m in I would rather the mother have an abortion. We care so much about the child apparently before its born but once its born how well are we going to treat it if we don’t have the money?
    No child should have to go through what I have been through.

  • sl

    There is a clear difference between a person and a fertilized egg. It is not the right of anyone to attempt to give more rights to a clump of cells than to a fully formed human being. This initiative is a waste of time and money. It is however, a huge call to action for women and men to start running for office if they oppose these attacks on women’s health.

    For more info: http://youtu.be/uy9dVlxvs-Q

  • Msteele

    No IUD? No invitro? No morning after pill? No provisions for rape or incest? No government healthcare but by golly your uterus is free game? NO!!! Live your life and let others live theirs. Dont agree? want to force your theocracy on others? Then move to Iran or the like!

  • AmericaLover

    Welcome to Christian Sharia law – hold on because there is more to come. It is also just bald-faced political opportunism: Notice the slip up by Brad Prewitt, he called it a “campaign” then quickly corrected himself and said “coalition.” He was correct the first time as he is a long time political operative, former staffer for Senator Cochran and probably building a base for his own future political plans – this is simply manipulating the public for personal rewards and selling America down the river. Nicely done, Brad!

  • Denis Sullivan

    The weakness of Proposition 26 should be obvious to all. It would literally FORCE a 12 year-old victim of incest to bear her father’s child, FORCE a rape victim to bear her rapist’s child, all because of some fundamentalist theological hokum that equates a fertilized ovum to “a baby.” In pointing this out to some Christian fundamentalists I’ve been told that “the child shouldn’t be punished for the sins of its father.” I thought that was particularly interesting where a juvenile incest victim is concerned, because forcing her to bear her father’s offspring IS punishing a real child— the victim — not a conjectural one that’s a clump of cells..

  • Arnold Simmel

    “Man is of woman born” it says in the Bible, and until we are born, we are not children. Referring to a two-celled conceptus as “a child” is, to put it plainly, “bearing false witness against a neighbor”. If we are going to be Christian or Jewish, we have, I think, as our first obligation to, “Love your neighbor as yourself”, which is obviously impossible, BUT is supposed to be a first and fundamental obligation to work at as best you can. And that means trying to be sympathetic to women and girls who have been impregnated but do not wish to have a child at that time. It is truly amazing that so many self-proclaimed “Christians”seem to have forgotten that first obligation.