How Mississippi beat Personhood

Nov 09, 2011

Mississippi voters blocked a "personhood amendment" Tuesday that would have defined a fertilized egg as a person. A successful election night for supporters was expected to rekindle the national debate over abortion, but the measure came up well short.

Chat with Irin Carmon about why the measure didn't pass. Ask questions and submit your own opinions on the topic now!

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How Mississippi beat Personhood
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Hi, everyone. Looking forward to discussing the defeat of Mississippi's Amendment 26, the most radical anti-abortion measure the country's ever voted on. 

What's astounding to me about the Mississippi Issue 26 result is that it had bipartisan support. If there was a state in the Union which would have passed this odious law, it would have been Mississippi. The wide margin of its defeat proves what many have speculated: the barking Bible-thumpers are loud, but are increasingly in the minority. It's also important to remember that even if this had passed there is no way it would have gotten by the Supreme Court without a rebuke to the State of Mississippi and a re-affirmation that in this country, you can legally have an abortion. I would have enjoyed reading the majority opinion, and Clarence Thomas' bizarre dissent.

You're right that the Democratic candidate for governor, Johnny Dupree, supported the measure, probably because he hoped it would neutralize it as an issue. But his position made no sense, frankly: He said he was voting on whether life began at conception despite doubts about IVF, ectopic pregnancies, and rape and incest exceptions -- none of which this measure had. A majority of Mississippians had the same concerns and voted no. 

Several prominent Mississippi ministers came out in opposition to the amendment. How critical was that to the outcome?

I think it was crucial. The letter from the Baptist minister in Greenville Mississippi I cite in my piece yesterday was particularly crucial, because it was a long and thoughtful assessment that broke from the Baptist leadership to oppose the measure. Even though Personhood is consistent with Catholic doctrine, more or less, bishops around the country declining to endorse Personhood amendments (mostly for tactical reasons) were also significant. I think people who considered themselves pro-life and of faith were looking for ways to validate their discomfort with the sweeping language of the initiative. 

Mississippi is the most conservative state in the U.S.  I thought for sure 26 would pass.  What reason do you think it didn't?  Was it the bipartisan support? Low voter turnout?

Actually, it looks like the turnout was quite high, though I haven't seen a full breakdown of the numbers yet, and the bipartisan support was for the amendment, not against it. I think the reason it failed, as I outline in my piece today, is that the opposition succeeded in pointing out that it was about more than just abortion rights (which many Mississippians say they oppose), but also about elements of reproductive freedom they value, like in-vitro fertilization, access to reliable contraception, and emergency procedures for ectopic pregnancies. 

Everyone knows MS has a bad reputation throughout the U.S. - mainly because of civil rights issues, low education scores, etc.  Do you think this helps them out in that department, or will it be overlooked?

I know the grassroots of the opposition feel extremely proud of what they pulled off, despite reasonable expectation that it would pass. One of the activists, Cristen Hemmins, told me before the vote, "All of the nation and people around the world are waiting to see how we vote - and whether Mississippi is going to reinforce all the negative stereotypes that most people have of our state. Are we going to vote against our interests again? Are we going to be the backwards idiots they think we are? I really think we're going to prove them wrong.

I've been surprised at how much attention the issue has gotten, so maybe this will influence perceptions of the Mississippian voter.

In your article you wrote about how Miss. only has ONE abortion clinic. I know it's a conservative state, but wow! And the doctor has to be flown in! Do you see this changing anytime soon?

Yes, the average Mississippi woman seeking an abortion can expect to drive several hours to get one, whether in the one clinic in Jackson, or in another state (apparently some women go to Memphis, Little Rock, or New Orleans.) The only Planned Parenthood in the state doesn't perform abortions. I was told that at one time, there were seven abortion clinics in the state, but the pro-life movement has declared near-victory on that front. And in fact, the woman who opened the first abortion clinic in Mississippi, Beverly McMillan, is now the president of Pro Life Mississippi and was a key advocate for Initiative 26. 

What was the biggest hurdle the people of Miss. had to overcome to get 26 shot down?

They had to get the message out that you could call yourself "pro-life," a broadly-adopted term in the state, and still oppose Initiative 26. The challenge is that explaining the actual implications of calling fertilized eggs people takes a lot more words than "do you want to save babies or not?" 

They also got started late, because they thought they could mount a legal challenge to get it off the ballot in the first place. In the meantime, Personhood Mississippi was organizing through churches and activating the thousands of people it had gotten to sign the petition to get it on the ballot. But it turned out they represented a relative fringe. 

Where will the pro-26 people go now?

Nationally, so-called "Personhood" amendments are being proposed in several states for the 2012 ballot, including Florida, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, Nevada and California. In Mississippi, the local activists are talking about trying to push it through the legislature, which given that they had widespread support of elected leaders, might just work (even if it would immediately be met by a legal challenge). On the other hand, legislators might back off after the voters rejected it.

How do you think this changes the big picture for the abortion debate?

Traditionally, abortion opponents have focused on incremental limits like waiting periods, ultrasound requirements, and regulating abortion clinics out of existence. Those are palatable to many voters. But the Personhood movement is so radical in carrying out the anti-abortion philosophy to its natural conclusion -- wanting to ban birth control on the flimsiest of scientific speculation, thinking that freezing embryos in pursuit of a wanted pregnancy is murder, and forcing birth on rape and incest victims -- that it alarmed Mississippi voters. The big picture is that is way too extreme for the vast majority of Americans. The problem for pro-choicers is that now they have to start arguing about birth control instead of working to ensure reproductive rights for women. 

Do you feel as though this is a turning point for MS? Away from the religious backwardness, and a funnel to progressive enlightenment? That the people of MS turned their collective back on religious fundamentalism gives me great hope for the future.

I don't know that there's been a massive groundswell in Mississippi. They did elect, by 61 percent, Phil Bryant as governor. This would be the man who was co-chair of Yes on 26, who compared opponents of 26 to Nazis, and who said Monday that" the evil dark side that exists in this world is taking hold. And they're saying, what we want you to be able to do is continue to extinguish innocent life. You see, if we could do that, Satan wins."

When Kennedy won in '60, some speculated that wives/women whose families supported Nixon went ahead and pulled the lever for JFK because of his youthful appeal. In other words, people who campaigned/vocally supported Nixon ended up voting independently of their folks, especially women. Is there any merit to the idea that female Mississippians told a pollster they'd vote Yes did so due to external pressure (family/congregation/husband), and once they hit the ballot box their self-interest kicked in as they realized "maybe it's not a good idea to vote away my reproductive rights," and voted No instead? I think its one of the only ways the predictions could have been so far off.

There's a piece in the American Prospect today arguing that there was that effect on the vote. I think that could account for the spread between the 44 percent who said in the most recent poll that they opposed it and the 55 percent who actually did, but I also think voters' views on this changed over time. The head of the opposition cited an internal poll from two weeks ago showing 62 percent supported it, and earlier internals suggested even more support. I think the No on 26 campaign was effective in sowing serious doubt about the broader implications of a so-called Personhood amendment, and those implications properly scared voters.  

Do you think not passing the personhood could in fact hurt our national consciousness on abortion? It seems that averting the passage of this issue resumes the back-door whittling down on abortion rights by say, limiting abortion clinics to one in the state, rather than putting it on the front burner for a long overdue conversation and reevaluation/reaffirmation.

Well, Mississippi already has only one abortion clinic in the state, and the doctor has to be flown in weekly from out of state. The director of the clinic told me that doctors in Mississippi have told her they're pro-choice but they don't want to deal with the stigma and threatened (and sometimes real) violence that comes along with performing abortions. 

But you're right that this presents an issue for the broader pro-choice movement, which is constantly having to play defense with ever more extreme measures. I very much doubt that the 58 percent of Mississippian voters who opposed Initiative 26 are all in favor of abortion rights. The best thing pro-choicers can hope for is that these voters consider what happens down the slippery slope in a broader loss of reproductive freedom, and re-evaluate their positions. 

Sadly, if the GOP does take control of the Virginia Senate, it wouldn't surprise me if they tried it here. Depressed Arlington Resident

It's already happened

Actually, there are several states where that is the case. It's a shame that people don't even know how badly the nominal right to have an abortion has been chipped away in much of the country.

I believe the number is three. According to this 2008 study, "35% of women of reproductive age lived in the 87% of counties that lacked a provider."  

Thanks for tuning in, everyone -- that's it for today. I'll be staying on these issues at Salon.com, or you can follow me on Twitter at @irincarmon.

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Irin Carmon
Irin Carmon is a journalist, blogger, and commentator. As of November 2011, she is a staff writer at Salon.com, focusing on culture and politics, and is also a frequent contributor to other publications in print and online, as well as to television programs.

Previously, she was a staff writer at Gawker Media?s Jezebel.com, and has written for BusinessWeek, Fast Company, Tablet, The Boston Globe, The Jerusalem Post, The Village Voice, and the New York Times, among others.

From 2005-2009, Carmon covered the media and luxury business at Women?s Wear Daily, and from 2003-2006 wrote a monthly travel column for the Boston Globe. She graduated from Harvard with highest honors in literature in 2005. Born in Israel, she is fluent in Hebrew, Spanish and Portuguese.
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