On Tuesday, the Mississippi Personhood Amendment, which would have amended the Mississippi constitution to define the word “person” or “persons” to “include every human being from the moment of fertilization,” was defeated at the polls by a 58 to 42 percent margin. Accurate polling was somewhat difficult to obtain. However, as recently as a few weeks ago, many Personhood supporters were confident the measure would pass by a substantial margin. The polls tightened dramatically in recent weeks and opponents of Personhood were able to carry their momentum into an Election Day victory.
It is hard to pinpoint what exactly led to this surge in opposition to the Personhood Amendment. Part of it might have been criticisms from former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour. Even though Barbour supported the initiative, the concerns he raised about contraception and potential prosecutions of women with ectopic pregnancies probably raised concerns in the minds of many pro-life voters. Furthermore, the coverage that the Personhood Amendment received from the mainstream media was almost uniformly negative, and abortion-industry operatives spread considerable misinformation about the purported threat personhood posed to contraception.
It is difficult to see where Personhood proponents go from here. Tuesday’s election offered Personhood supporters their best opportunity for electoral success. They qualified a citizen initiative in Mississippi — among the most pro-life states in the country — during a low-turnout election in which Democrats fielded relatively weak statewide candidates. In spite of all this, the Mississippi Personhood Amendment still lost by a double-digit margin. Personhood supporters can rightly claim that they received unfair treatment from the media. However, pro-life proposals will attract negative media coverage wherever they are launched.
There are some lessons to be learned from this. First, many polls consistently show that most Americans are uncomfortable with abortion, but think it should be a legal option in hard-case circumstances such as rape, incest, and life of the mother. Now I, along with many other pro-life activists, think that the unborn deserve legal protection in all situations, regardless of the circumstances surrounding their conception. However, this is not a view shared by most Americans — frustrating though it might be for pro-lifers.
Another lesson is that historically, the initiative process has not been kind to pro-lifers. Pro-life initiatives often do less well than expected, because abortion opponents are typically able to raise and spend more money than pro-lifers. Overall, pro-lifers have not fared well with citizen initiatives. Since Roe v. Wade, the pro-life movement has used the initiative successfully on only four occasions. Public-funding bans were enacted in Colorado and Arkansas in 1984 and 1986. Parental-involvement laws were passed in Colorado and Alaska in 1998 and 2005, respectively. It should be noted that public-funding cutoffs and parental-notice laws are harder to demonize, and enjoy broader support, than personhood measures.
In the aftermath of the Tuesday’s election, Personhood proponents stated their intention to move forward with a revised version of the Personhood Amendment in Mississippi and to pursue Personhood Initiatives in other states. One has to admire their persistence and devotion to the pro-life cause. That having been said, Tuesday’s results should really give supporters of the Personhood strategy pause.
— Michael J. New is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan – Dearborn and a fellow at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J.