Mississippi's Choice: Personhood and the Rights of Zygotes

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Rogelio V. Solis / AP

"Personhood" supporters gather in Jackson, Miss., in favor of a proposed state constitutional amendment that would give fertilized eggs the same civil rights as born people

Rebecca Kiessling embodies the right-wing female firebrand in all the clichéd ways. She has long, straight blonde hair, a law degree and bears a resemblance to Ann Coulter. She's married, a home-schooling mother of five and vehemently pro-life. What sets her apart, though, and what has made her the optimal spokeswoman for radical pro-lifers in the abortion wars, is that she is a daughter of rape, conceived when her biological mother was abducted at knifepoint in 1968. She likes to point out that she has spent her 41 years on this earth only because abortion was illegal in the state of Michigan that year. Her mother went to two back-alley abortionists before being forced, because of the law, to carry Rebecca (whom she gave up for adoption but recently readopted) to term.

For Kiessling, and the new ilk of radical pro-lifers behind what they call the "personhood" movement, anything less than a total abortion ban is simply mealymouthed appeasement. They don't bother with "redefining rape," an item on the agenda of the comparatively warm-water pro-lifers in the House this year. As far as the personhood crowd is concerned, it doesn't matter whether a rape was forcible or not: if the rape made a pregnancy, the rape victim must be legally required to gestate and give birth to a baby.

"I believe that every child deserves protection regardless of how they were conceived, and I don't believe I deserve the death penalty for the crimes of my father," Kiessling told TIME. "Planned Parenthood will say to me, 'You are lucky.' I wasn't lucky. I was protected! I feel like my life was saved from a burning building and I need to go back to save the rest of them."

Saving the rest of them means outlawing abortion even in cases of rape or incest. "A baby is not the worst thing that can happen to a woman after a rape," Kiessling, a lawyer, likes to say in her frequent testimony to state legislatures and on her recent "Conceived in Rape" tour through Mississippi, where residents in a few weeks will vote on a state constitutional amendment to give all fertilized eggs the same civil rights as born people.

As abortion-rights group NARAL and Planned Parenthood scrambled to mount a response to yet another House bill aimed at restricting not just abortion but also women's access to contraception and medical care — HR 358, dubbed the "Let Women Die Act" for allowing emergency-room staff to refuse to provide lifesaving abortions — in Ohio, radical pro-lifers were delivering a petition to the attorney general that opens the processing of putting a similar personhood amendment before the state's voters in 2012. Similar ballot efforts are under way in Nevada, California, the Dakotas and Montana, as well as a legislative push in Wisconsin.

Personhood USA, based in Arvada, Colo., is the nerve center for this new radical antiabortion effort. The personhood drive might be to the pro-life movement what Occupy Wall Street is to the left — young, provocative and radical.

Led by two baby-faced men in their early 30s, and with photogenic Kiessling as its "I survived abortion" spokeswoman, the personhood movement is working day and night to declare all fertilized eggs — even the zygotes in IVF petri dishes, or the ones conceived in an overnight fling that are about to be eradicated with the morning-after pill — as "persons," subject to the same civil rights (chiefly, not to be murdered, but all other rights might theoretically apply) as born people.

The logistical, legal basis for the personhood movement is a sentence in Roe v. Wade written by Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun in 1973: "The appellee and certain amici [pro-lifers] argue that the fetus is a 'person' within the language and meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment. In support of this, they outline at length and in detail the well-known facts of fetal development. If this suggestion of personhood is established, the appellant's case, of course, collapses, for the fetus' right to life would then be guaranteed specifically by the Amendment."

Kiessling and her supporters have decided to drive a truck into that legal wording and declare all zygotes persons. And on Nov. 8, Mississippians will find on the general election ballot a personhood amendment to change 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." The amendment, Proposition 26, was assured of a place on the ballot after the Mississippi Supreme Court rejected the ACLU's challenge to it in a 7-2 ruling in September, prompting Yes on 26 executive director Brad Prewitt to crow: "We need Mississippi's pro-life public officials, pastors and patriots to stand up and be counted in the days ahead as we seek to become the first state in the nation to grant civil rights to the unborn."

Mississippi is not the first nor the only state to be targeted by Personhood USA, where Catholic Gualberto Garcia Jones, 33, teamed up with Evangelical Pastor Keith Mason, 31, to push the most radical pro-life agenda ever. The court ruling in Mississippi, coupled with a Supreme Court ruling in September in Mexico upholding some aspects of the personhood claim, prompted Jones to say that "September of 2011 may very well be remembered as the point in time when the culture of death began to crumble."

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