HATTIESBURG, Miss. - The legality of abortion has remained a hot topic in American politics since the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973, which upheld the right of a woman to have an abortion. This ruling has since been hailed by proponents of women's rights and reproductive freedom as a cornerstone ruling, while decried by its religious opponents and used as a political wedge issue by the right wing. However, in recent years, opposition to this ruling, and the rights it guarantees, has become increasingly active. The most recent incarnation of this opposition is the "personhood" initiatives, which have dire consequences for women.
Since riding into power in the House of Representatives, and many state legislatures, with a battle cry of "jobs, jobs, jobs," the Republican Party has instead introduced, debated, and in some cases passed, literally hundreds of bills or amendments related to abortion and abortion rights. This ranged from cutting off funding to Planned Parenthood (which provides the majority of its health care services outside of abortion) in Indiana, to requiring a mother to listen to a sonogram of her fetus's heartbeat prior to any abortion in Texas. And in South Dakota, Republicans have tripled the waiting period for receiving an abortion, from 24 hours to 72, an unnecessary hardship for women living in the mostly rural state. In addition, it forces women to receive "abortion counseling," which is a euphemism for religious "pro-life" lecturing.
However, all of these pale in comparison to the "personhood" initiative being pushed in Mississippi. Personhood USA, an extremist Christian anti-abortion organization, is pushing Initiative 26 which would amend the state constitution to say that legal personhood begins the moment an egg is fertilized by a sperm. Having tried this route twice unsuccessfully in Colorado, this group turned to Mississippi, likely due to it being a highly conservative and religious area that not surprisingly happens to be plagued by a terrible education record.
This personhood initiative has many unintended, and some intended, consequences that have the potential to be horrific for the women of Mississippi.
The most salient is its potential to prohibit women from seeking abortions as medical care in instances in which the life of the mother is threatened - ectopic pregnancies, for example. The ambiguous wording of Initiative 26 seems to allow no exceptions for the life of the mother. The Personhood Initiative group, in their "Mississippi Personhood Booklet," makes its stance clear: "A life of the mother exception to any abortion law would be a violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because other classes of people are not given that same kind of exception." The measure would prevent doctors from terminating ectopic pregnancies, which could have fatal consequences. Basically: there would be no life-of-the-mother exceptions, and women needing that care can either flee to other states, or die.
The initiative may also ban many common forms of birth control, including Intrauterine devices (IUDs). This is because most forms of birth control not only act by preventing fertilization, but if fertilization does occur they prevent the fertilized egg from implanting on the uterine wall. The Personhood Initiative considers that an act of murder. After weeks of denying these facts, and decrying them as "scare tactics," Personhood USA spokesman Walter Hoye admitted that Initiative 26 would, in fact, ban hormonal birth control.
Even more appalling, Initiative 26 would prevent rape victims from receiving the "morning after" pill. According to the Yes On 26 FAQ, rape victims would be forced to go through pregnancy and childbirth.
Ironically, Imitative 26 could also harm those seeking to become pregnant. According to Dr. Randall Hines, one of only four physicians who perform In vitro fertilization (IVF) in Mississippi, Initiative 26 would make the most common and effective IVF practices illegal. Rims Barber, director of the Mississippi Human Services Agenda, says that because "more than one egg is harvested and fertilized to achieve a successful IVF pregnancy, making all the embryos 'people' under Mississippi law will make it difficult if not impossible to continue offering IVF treatment in our state."
It is no surprise, in light of all this, that several Mississippi medical associations are strongly opposing Initiative 26. Mississippi Doctors Against #26, the Mississippi State Medical Association, the Mississippi Chapter of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the Mississippi Nurses Association, the American Society of Reproductive Medicine and the Society of Assisted Reproductive Technology have all come out strongly against this proposed amendment to the constitution as both dangerous and shortsighted.
Even some normally "pro-life" figures oppose the initiative. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a staunch conservative and "pro-life" supporter, has expressed his "concerns" about Initiative 26. He stated on MSNBC that he may not vote for Initiative 26 because of its "ramifications on in vitro fertilization and [ectopic] pregnancies" for Mississippi's women.
Unfortunately, Mississippi does not face this threat alone. Similar measures are being pushed in Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Montana.
Visit the No On 26 website, educate yourself and others, and, if you can, spare a dollar or two to help them get the word out ahead of the November 8 election to prevent Initiative 26 from becoming a very real cloud over the head of hundreds of thousands of Mississippi women.
Photo: Jackson, Miss., phone bank. Mississippians for Healthy Families Facebook page.