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Jane Ahlin, Published November 12 2011

Ahlin: Even in heart of Bible belt, ‘personhood’ is a tough sell

What happens when the state criminalizes birth control methods? What happens when the state forces a 13-year-old incest victim to carry a pregnancy to term? What happens when the state stands between young couples with infertility problems and their ability to conceive? What happens when the state can force a woman with virulent cancer to carry a pregnancy to term, even though her doctors say she is likely to die as a result?

What happens? If the “Personhood USA” movement had succeeded in Mississippi, we’d be finding out.

With the energetic support of the movement, Mississippi put “personhood” to a vote. The actual language on the ballot read, “Should the term ‘person’ be defined to include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the equivalent thereof?” In other words, a “yes” vote would have given every fertilized egg in the state of Mississippi the same legal rights as a human being – no exceptions.

To everyone’s surprise, 58 percent of the voters in the state of Mississippi said, “no.”

The reason the vote came as a surprise, in large part, is because the state involved was Mississippi, a state considered to be among the most – if not the most – socially conservative state in the nation and because prominent politicians from both parties supported the measure. Also, the “yes” promoters painted the law as nothing more than an anti-abortion measure and insisted the “no” promoters were using scare tactics. Throughout the summer and into the fall, Mississippians seemed to agree with them.

However, that was before the public debate was impossible to ignore. For instance, speaking for Personhood USA, a man named Walter Hoye appeared on the Diane Rehm national radio show. He said that, indeed, IUDs, morning-after medication, and any birth control pills that prevented implantation rather than fertilization would be illegal. Then, too, local and national media started showing supporters of personhood who were insistent that rape and incest should not be exceptions to the law (any rights of the woman or girl assaulted would be secondary to the embryo’s rights). Concerning problems of infertility – particularly, in vitro fertilization – the supporters of the measure were vague, citing adoption of the unused frozen embryos as a possibility or simply glossing over the procedure, as if the phrase, “the equivalent thereof,” didn’t apply to embryos put together in a Petri dish.

In addition, the “personhood” promoters – who had no trouble throwing words, such as “murder” and “murderer” around – were mute about criminal penalties for all that “murdering” done through illegal birth control, stem cell research, or fertility clinic procedures. (For that matter, how would spontaneous miscarriages and abortions be investigated by the state? Could a woman be prosecuted for going to another state for an abortion or to obtain illegal birth control?)

On the other side, the “no” promoters kept asking the questions the personhood supporters wouldn’t answer. They also showed people who would be affected, including a family with three children conceived through IVF. (After the vote, the mother said that “as a mother who struggled and fought to have a family through in vitro fertilization, the idea that this could be taken away from women like me was terrifying.”) Another woman wondered in a letter to a newspaper what would have happened to her if her doctor had been forced to satisfy a state bureaucracy before terminating her ectopic pregnancy. With a husband and two little girls to care for at the time, she wanted people to know that after recovering, she went on to have another baby.

North Dakota is not Mississippi. However, some of our legislators have brought “personhood” legislation to the past three legislative sessions. Proponents have insisted it’s to end abortion and have pooh-poohed other consequences. Unlike most of us, evidently, they’re comfortable having the state choose their methods of birth control, or – in the case of needing IVF – whether they’re allowed to bear children.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.