What the Mississippi Personhood Amendment Can Teach Us About Organizing Around Reproductive Rights and Justice

By Christine Cupaiuolo — November 8, 2011

Voters in Mississippi are heading to the polls today to vote on a ballot initiative that would define a fertilized egg as a person. If it passes, it would have far-reaching implications for women’s health and reproductive rights.

Initiative 26 would define personhood as “every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.” Colorado voted on a personhood amendment in 2008 and 2010, and both times the amendment failed. But in Mississippi the vote looks much more ominous. According to a survey by Public Policy Polling, 45 percent of voters support the amendment and 44 percent oppose it.

Here’s a closer look at the breakdown:

Men (48-42), whites (54-37), and Republicans (65-28) support the proposal. But women (42-46), African Americans (26-59), Democrats (23-61), and independents (35-51) oppose it. The good news for those opposed to the amendment is that 11% of voters are undecided and their demographics are 58% women, 54% Democratic, and 42% black-those still on the fence disproportionately belong to voter groups that oppose the amendment. That suggests when those folks make up their minds the proposal could be narrowly defeated.

“The groups trying to defeat the proposed Personhood amendment in Mississippi have had momentum on their side over the last few weeks,” said Dean Debnam, President of Public Policy Polling. “There is a very real chance now that the proposal will be defeated.”

Among the myriad ways women and families would be affected: Abortions would be banned, with no exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother. Birth control, IVF, stem-cell research, miscarriage … it’s all murky.

The initiative would also restrict the ability of doctors to freely practice medicine and raises questions about various health procedures. As Meghan McCarthy writes in National Journal:

For example, an ectopic pregnancy—when the fertilized egg implants in the fallopian tube—can kill a pregnant woman if the egg is not removed. Whether that procedure would be allowed in Mississippi should the ballot initiative pass is under question.

“You have to offer full array of services. You are held to a standard of ‘appropriate medical care,’ ” if you receive federal funds, Sara Rosenbaum, a law professor and the chairwoman of the Department of Health Policy at George Washington University, said in an interview.

Beyond federal health programs, the personhood initiative could end up affecting everything from tax law, such as whether a pregnant woman can claim her unborn fetus as a dependent, to fertility clinics that have unused fertilized eggs.

Loretta Ross, national director of SisterSong, wrote a fantastic commentary last month explaining why the Mississippi ballot initiative on personhood and Initiative 27 on Voter ID exclusions “may be one of the most important opportunities on the ground for the Pro-Choice and Reproductive Justice Movements to work together.”

SisterSong and the Trust Black Women partnership have been on the ground in Mississippi, building bridges and advocating for united campaign work on both initiatives. “We have to make parallels between race and gender so that people easily understand that we take their human rights seriously,” writes Ross, offering a passionate argument for why these issues are intertwined and why a coordinated effort should have begun sooner.

My fear is that if we win, some folks will fail to acknowledge that the African American voters delivered the victory. If we lose, then some may say it was similar to the California gay marriage ballot that some falsely claim was lost because of the black voters in California. In reality, it is the failure of those who run campaigns based on outdated campaign models to invest sufficient resources in the African American community to swing the pendulum our way among some of the most consistent and committed Democratic voters on human rights issues.

Southern African American activists have been sounding the alarm to invest much-needed dollars at the grassroots level in Mississippi and throughout the South for quite some time, recognizing that the Civil Rights movement is not over, and that the Women’s Rights movement is embryonic in our region. Those fighting against the Voter ID initiative around the country and especially in Mississippi are clearly under-funded and lack the resources to provide their own polling research, campaign offices, phone banks, etc. We have been forced to do “quick-fix” organizing and mobilizing in Mississippi; had the call of African American reproductive justice activists been heeded, we could have been stronger and united as two movements working together to save women’s lives and women’s votes.

If the ballot initiative passes, women’s health organizations are expected to challenge its constitutionality in court. Aside from the legal wrangling, we must, as Ross states, look inward at our own strategies in related battles to come.

3 responses to “What the Mississippi Personhood Amendment Can Teach Us About Organizing Around Reproductive Rights and Justice”

  1. I think a good lesson learned from this is that organizing for reproductive justice needs to be broader than just the fight to the individual access to abortion. The Personhood Amendment overreached because it allowed a myriad of people to imagine the slippery slope of not being able to make decisions with their doctors, of a woman’s body being put against the interest of a bunch of cells. A reproductive justice approach as a framework for organizing allows for the conversation to have a broader foundation – it allows women and men to see this as an issue that is bigger than abortion and is tied to the very essence of the ethos of individualism that is the supposed base of this country.

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