In Mississippi, voters to decide whether fertilized egg is a person

Next Tuesday, voters in Mississippi will vote on a measure that, if passed, will become the first law of its kind in the country. Pro-life activists, frustrated by the slow incremental pace of legislative change on the issue of abortion, have sought a way to circumvent Roe v. Wade – and think they might have hit on it with a state amendment that essentially says life begins at fertilization — earlier even than conception — and explicitly designates a fertilized egg as a human person, entitled to all accompanying rights (first and foremost of which is the right to life!).

If approved, the nation’s first “personhood” amendment could criminalize abortion and limit in-vitro fertilization and some forms of birth control. It also would give a jolt of energy to a national movement that views mainstream antiabortion activists as timid and complacent.

“They’ve just taken an incremental approach,” said Les Riley, the founder of Personhood Mississippi and a self-described tractor salesman and father of 10 who initiated the state’s effort. “We’re just going to the heart of the matter, which is: Is this a person or not? God says it is, and science has confirmed it.”

Mississippi is not the first state to attempt such legislation. An effort to pass a similar ballot initiative recently failed in Colorado. Currently, efforts to define an embryo as a person are underway in about a dozen states, including Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and Ohio, according to The Washington Post.

Not surprisingly, Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union are actively opposing the initiative in Mississippi, combating pro-life information distribution efforts pamphlet by pamphlet. More surprisingly, some doctors have described the measure as “dangerous,” suggesting it might make it difficult for obstetricians and gynecologists to act in the best interest of a patient in the cases of molar or ectopic pregnancies. Most surprisingly, some pro-life groups also have concerns about the amendment. Eagle Forum, for example, has suggested its vague language might actually “enable more mischief from judges.” Others — including Mississippi Democratic pro-life gubernatorial candidate Johnny DuPree — just fret about the implications for birth control, in vitro fertilization and extreme cases. For example, would a pregnant mother with cancer not be able to take chemotherapy if it threatened the life of her baby?

The measure does reveal the close links among the issues of birth control, in vitro fertilization and abortion — links doubtless even many pro-life advocates would rather not examine. But the question of personhood — not only when it accrues to a living being, but also what it is (that is, how human beings differ from animals) – is an important one to hash out, for it is key to consistent positions on all these issues, just as it is key to the question of whether abortion should be permissible in “exceptional cases” like rape, incest and situations that threaten the life of the mother.

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