Last week it was announced that a Personhood Amendment will appear on the November 2011 general election ballot in Mississippi. Personhood Amendment 26 would amend the Mississippi constitution to define the word “person” or “persons” to “include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the functional equivalent thereof.” The organizers succeeded in collecting a sufficient number of signatures and fending off an appeal by Planned Parenthood to have the Mississippi supreme court declare the Personhood Amendment unconstitutional.
I have never thought that these Personhood Amendments were a particularly good strategy for grassroots pro-lifers. First, declaring that life begins at conception would not, by itself, stop any abortions. Even if this amendment survived subsequent legal challengers, a separate set of criminal punishments would still need to be legislated and enacted into law. Additionally, these Personhood Amendments place the pro-life movement on some very difficult political terrain. They force pro-life activists to publicly oppose abortion in some of the most difficult cases including rape, incest, and life of the mother. They also effectively require pro-life activists to support the banning — not just the defunding — of embryonic stem cell research. They might also require pro-lifers to oppose in vitro fertilization.
Collectively, this is a tough sell. All in all, while most Americans disapprove of abortion on demand — they do tend to think abortion should be a legal option in hard case circumstances. Regardless, it will be interesting to see how this Personhood Amendment fares at the polls. Previous Personhood initiatives have fared poorly in Colorado receiving only 27 percent and 29 percent of the vote in 2008 and 2010 respectively. Now, Personhood advocates probably have a better chance in Mississippi than in any other state. Mississippi is among the most conservative states in the country. It has passed a number of pro-life laws, which is partly why there is only one abortion clinic remaining in the state. Finally, it has a very active and engaged pro-life community. As such, if Mississippi voters reject the Personhood Amendment this November, advocates of this approach would do well to reconsider their strategy.
— Michael J. New is an assistant professor at the University of Michigan–Dearborn and a fellow at the Witherspoon Institute.