On Tuesday, November 8, the people of Mississippi vote on Initiative 26–the “personhood amendment”–which declares that personhood begins at the moment of fertilization. It’s just as ridiculous as it sounds and has no basis in science or law–just in conservative morality and controlling women. So, y’know, same ol’.
Initiative 26 adds just 35 words to the constitution of Mississippi:
SECTION 33. Person defined. As used in this Article III of the state constitution, “The term ‘person’ or ‘persons’ shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.”
Proponents would have you believe that those 35 words will have minimal impact on women in the state of Mississippi, outside of outlawing abortion (which is huge enough in its own right). Every fact sheet or FAQ you get from groups like Yes on 26 has the same list of things that the amendment won’t do: won’t outlaw birth control, won’t cost the state money, won’t prosecute women for miscarriages. And from an entirely literal reading, that’s actually true. The amendment doesn’t say anything outside of those 35 words. In fact, the danger of Initiative 26 lies in what the amendment doesn’t say: the exceptions and restrictions it doesn’t guarantee. Thirty-five words can do a huge amount of damage, and pretending it can’t means a lot of misleading, equivocating, and flat-out lying for groups like Yes on 26.
So to clear a few things up:
Yes, the bill can be used to outlaw all abortion. Obviously.
Yes, the bill can be used to outlaw the birth control pill. The vast majority of the medical community agrees that the Pill works by providing hormones that tell the body not to ovulate–when sperm is introduced into the uterus, there’s nothing for it to fertilize, so there’s no embryo. On the very off chance an egg slips through, though, the hormones also have thickened the cervical mucus so the sperm can’t get to the egg. And on the very off-off chance that supersperm does get through, it can’t penetrate the egg. It has been suggested that the Pill also might thin the lining of the uterus such that said unlikely zygote wouldn’t be able to implant. The medical community has seen no evidence that this third mechanism actually takes place, but they’re obliged to include it in information about the Pill just because the possibility exists. So if your bill identifies personhood as beginning at the moment of fertilization, then yes, it will outlaw any medication that could possibly prevent implantation of an zygote, even if it that doesn’t actually happen.
Yes, the bill can be used to prosecute women who miscarry. Identifying an embryo as a person places the pregnant woman in the role of guardian. As with a woman who gives a toddler alcohol, takes it bungee jumping, or drives it around without a baby seat, a pregnant woman who drinks, engages in vigorous physical activity, or drives without a seatbelt would be guilty of neglect and child endangerment if those activities negatively affected the embryo. And this isn’t theoretical–women already have been prosecuted for their miscarriages.
The Yes on 26 site notes that “women were not prosecuted for miscarriages before Roe v. Wade.” This is true–and has no bearing on this case. Roe v. Wade extended the 14th-Amendment right to privacy to include abortion; it didn’t establish personhood, and after it passed, a fetus was still just a fetus. And it doesn’t matter whether or not women were prosecuted for miscarriages then, because they are being prosecuted for them now.
Yes, the bill can be detrimental to women’s health. Outside of simply preventing women and their doctors from freely making the health decisions that are right for them, Initiative 26 places the fetus-person on equal legal standing with the mother. Women whose pregnancies endanger their health–ectopic pregnancies, preeclampsia, and so many other complications that kill hundreds of women in the U.S. every year–would have to weigh their lives against the lives of their fetuses. A woman with a deadly illness like cancer would have to risk endangering her fetus-person with chemotherapy drugs or choose to forgo treatment entirely. The bill does not specify that doctors will be allowed to terminate pregnancies for health reasons–it includes no exception for the life of the mother, leaving the question entirely up to judicial interpretation. All the bill says is that the fetus that threatens her life has the same right to life that she does.
Yes, health care costs can rise. The cost of malpractice insurance for OB/GYNs is so high that many doctors choose to leave the field, or not to go into the field at all, for fear of losing their livelihood over a “bad baby.” Initiative 26 would turn every doctor into an OB/GYN, and every procedure on a pregnant woman would be a potential malpractice suit. If women are lucky, their doctors will only raise prices to cover the increased premiums. If they’re unlucky, the doctors will bail entirely for a state where they can afford–and are allowed–to practice medicine. This is great news for a state consistently ranked 50th in the nation for health care and 49th for physicians per capita. [pdf]
No, the bill won’t outlaw IVF, but it might as well. While the amendment doesn’t prevent IVF clinics from creating new embryos, it does prevent them from destroying them once a woman is done with her treatment. That leaves the clinic as guardians of thousands of little embryo-people and liable for any damage that comes to them while in the clinic’s custody, and for the death of any little embryo-people that are transferred but don’t implant. Forced to make the transition from medical facility to cryogenic day-care center, it’s not unlikely that IVF clinics will leave Mississippi in search of more hospitable and less scientifically backward states.
Yes, the bill leaves the door open for some comically ridiculous shit. If personhood begins at zygotehood, that confers upon zygotes all the rights of people. In addition to life, persons in Mississippi get property rights. They have rights to certain social services. Minors can petition for emancipation. Under this amendment, a pregnant woman would be counted as two people for census purposes, and if Mom dies, her ten-year-old has to split his inheritance with a cooler full of snowflake babies. Is it likely to happen? No, probably not. Is it possible? Yup. And do unlikely, head-shakingly stupid things happen? All the time. If you consider that under this law, your average IVF clinic will have more frozen citizens than the state of Minnesota, does the concept of embryonic personhood make even the slightest amount of sense? Oh, sweet Lord in heaven, how it doesn’t.
If you only remember one thing about Initiative 26, let it be that since the text of the amendment is short, potential judicial application is tremendously broad. Even though the text of the amendment itself doesn’t ban the Pill, IVF, or miscarriage, it doesn’t in any way prevent lawmakers and law enforcers from using it for those purposes. Per the Yes on 26 FAQ:
Personhood is a constitutional definition that establishes a principle. It does not attempt to set policy and procedure for every situation.
Anyone who tries to talk about the things the amendment doesn’t ban is being disingenuous–the danger of this amendment isn’t what it does but what it can be used to do.
The danger isn’t just in Mississippi–Florida, Ohio, and South Dakota all have similar initiatives coming up for vote in 2012, and any similar bill would have similar results. If you’re in Mississippi, for the love of God vote no on Initiative 26 on Tuesday. If you know people in Mississippi, make sure they have accurate information about the potential impact of this amendment and aren’t just listening uncritically to abundantly available misinformation. If you don’t know anyone in Mississippi, you have five days to make new friends. And even if you’re not one to make friends, at least spread the truth around, if only for the reason that truth is shiny and bullshit makes the world a sad place.