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

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Jones told TIME that the movement is staffed almost entirely with people born after Roe v. Wade, who could theoretically have been legally aborted in the U.S. He also insisted it is not aligned with the Republican Party. "Honestly, I think personhood is not politically partisan. People say, 'You are doing this to get people out to the polls for Republicans.' I probably won't even vote for any Republicans this year. I would have no qualms voting for a Democrat with a Democratic platform on everything except for life. And I think a lot of Hispanics would vote for Democrats if they were consistent on life."

Even mainstream pro-lifers ridicule or distance themselves from these personhood initiatives. One attorney associated with various pro-life organizations described the personhood movement as a "fool's errand," "intellectually incoherent" and "lacking thought." Antiabortion battle ax Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum website says personhood "won't prevent a single abortion" and concludes that it's bad for the movement. "This hurtful effort misleads pro-lifers with the false hope that a referendum can overturn Roe v. Wade, when only the U.S. Supreme Court can do that."

Such mainstream pro-life opposition only encourages the personhood people, as it sets them apart from what they call compromisers. "Michigan just celebrated the passage of, or the governor's signing of, a partial-birth-abortion ban," Kiessling says. "We think that's celebrating mediocrity. They can still do it if they use lethal injection" on the fetus, she says.

In Mississippi, a pro-choice organizer claims to see the ballot initiative as an opportunity to trap all pro-lifers into an extremist corner. The state's medical associations have come out against it because it would make murderers of doctors "who perform routine procedures" on women, says Stan Flint, a managing partner at Southern Strategy Group, advising a coalition that's opposing the amendment. Flint acknowledges, though, that the personhood movement had a yearlong head start on the pro-choice movement in Mississippi, because Planned Parenthood and the ACLU fought them in the courts for months and only went to the ground with its message when the Mississippi high court ruled a month ago that the initiative could go on the ballot in November.

Most Mississippi women already have to cross state lines to get an abortion: there are only two abortion providers in the whole state, and 99% of the women have no access to abortion in their counties. But Dixie liberals aren't throwing in the towel on personhood. "We are mounting a major campaign on the ground," Flint says. "This is contrary to Mississippi values. To have government deciding who has children, that's communist China! We don't think the people of Mississippi believe a 13-year-old child pregnant as a result of rape must be forced to carry a child to term."

Sandy Theis, with the pro-choice Healthy Families Ohio, says the petition drive to get a personhood amendment on the ballot in 2012 is "this totally radical dangerous [effort] to give fertilized eggs the same rights as born people, and in the process outlaw a lot of commonly used forms of birth control, the IUD and certain birth-control pills, threatening women's health and safety, prohibiting things like cancer treatments. I have never seen anything like it."

If Mississippi voters approve the initiative, it will become law in 30 days, and redefine person in the more than 10,000 places in the state's law books where the word appears. One unintended result: a pregnant woman (at any stage of pregnancy) would have to be counted as two people in the Mississippi census. That may be bizarre to most Americans, but for the young crusaders in Arvada and Michigan, it all makes perfect sense. Kiessling is headed back to Mississippi to stump for the initiative around the state in her "Conceived in Rape" tour. She says she's encountered other children of rape victims at many of her events. For them, she says, it's beyond politics.

Flint has a very jaundiced view of Kiessling and sees the initiative as a ploy to motivate conservative black and faith-based voters. "We have seen every stunt they have pulled and there is no level beneath which they will stoop to manipulate voters of faith," he says. "I am never surprised by the new levels of low: comparing women who terminate pregnancies to Hitler's genocide, for example."

Kiessling hasn't taken her tour to Ohio yet, but organizer Theis had softer words for the rape victim's daughter. "Obviously, that's a very tragic situation. That's fine that she is here. It's horrible her mother was raped. But I don't think because of her personal circumstances, every other woman, at least in our state, should have her rights and health and safety put in jeopardy."

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