Revisiting the Personhood Amendment

An amendment that would classify a fertilized egg as a person for all legal purposes in Mississippi went down to a surprising defeat on Nov. 8, by a 58-42 margin, but the battle is likely just beginning in Mississippi and elsewhere.

Amendment 26, known as the “Personhood amendment” stated that life would be defined as beginning at conception. Personhood USA is promoting these bills nationwide as a way of eliminating abortion. Some charge that the bills would also criminalize some forms of birth control, and have a chilling effect on such procedures as in vitro fertilization, as all embryos would then have rights.

The medical community expressed concern that under the law, ectopic pregnancies could not be dealt with, leading to the death of women.

The Personhood movement is seen as resulting from frustration over the inability of abortion foes to make much of a legal dent in abortion and prompt a Supreme Court showdown over Roe v. Wade. However, many of the groups that oppose abortion did not go to bat for Mississippi 26, saying it was too extreme.

The bill was placed on the ballot after supporters collected 130,000 signatures in 2010.

Part of the coalition of religious leaders opposed to Mississippi 26 was the Jewish community, as Jewish tradition has always given precedence to the mother’s life and well-being.

Three of Mississippi’s four resident rabbis were listed among the faith leaders opposing Mississippi 26 by Mississippians for Healthy Families — Rabbi Debra Kassoff, Rabbi Valerie Cohen and Rabbi Marshal Klaven.

At a press conference with Catholic leaders and other clergy before the vote, Rabbi Debra Kassoff called the bill a “blunt instrument” that would “harm Mississippi women and their families both physically and spiritually.”

Rabbi Cohen said “when a fertilized egg or embryo is putting a mother’s life at risk, the state shouldn’t decide what’s next.” Noting that religious traditions give guidance in such situations, she added the bill would take away some “freedom of religious choice.”

Jewish Women International noted in a statement that Mississippi has the highest infant mortality rate in the country, the highest teen birthrate and the highest rate of unmarried pregnancies. “Given these shocking statistics, it’s shameful that anti-choice groups have made this the focus of political debate in Mississippi… lawmakers in Mississippi must bring attention to issues that will actually improve the lives of their constituents.”

The statement concluded, “Actual persons in the Magnolia state deserve better than Initiative 26.”

The National Council of Jewish Women applauded the defeat of the “draconian ballot initiative,” stating that “extremist views do not represent the will of the voters.”

Hadassah also referenced the Mississippi bill, stating Hadassah “is a strong advocate for a woman’s freedom of choice and opposes any attempts to restrict, through state administrative regulations, legislation, or court action, the right to reproductive choice and/or use of family planning programs delivering any and all services.”

Personhood USA states its primary mission is “to serve Jesus by being an Advocate for those who can not speak for themselves, the pre-born child.”

The Mississippi initiative was spearheaded by Les Riley, who founded Personhood Mississippi in 2009. He also chairs the Mississippi Constitution Party, which seeks “to restore our government to its Constitutional limits.”

Riley was also a regular blogger for Christian Exodus, which originally sought to relocate thousands of “Christian constitutionalists” to South Carolina, to set up self-government “based upon Christian principles at the local and state level… with the ultimate goal of forming an independent Christian nation that will survive after the decline and fall of the financially and morally bankrupt American empire.”

The group also promotes “personal secession” through “a home-centered economy, with intentional community, home-schooling, home-gardening, house churches, health-cost sharing, private exchange, unlicenced ministry, and any other way in which we might live free and godly lives in Christ Jesus.”

Recently, Riley’s posts were erased from the Christian Exodus site.

He asked that supporters of 26 “pray not only for victory in the election, but that many people who are outside of Christ would be brought to him by our efforts — even those opposing the amendment.”

For years, abortion opponents have referred to the years since Roe v. Wade overturned laws against abortion as the American Holocaust. That imagery was prevalent in the Mississippi vote as well.

Personhood USA argued that “Denying the humanity of a class of persons may sound familiar; it is… how they justified exterminating the Jews under Nazi Germany. It was wrong then, and it is wrong now.”

At a Tupelo rally the night before the election, Phil Bryant, who won the governor’s race, compared abortion to the Nazis marching Jews to the ovens, and said that if 26 were defeated “Satan wins” and opponents to 26 were saying “we want you to be able to… continue to extinguish innocent life.”

Perhaps the most controversial was the distribution of a video, “180,” that made no bones in comparing abortion and the Holocaust. “Saying it’s OK to choose is the same thing as saying it’s OK for Hitler to choose,” the film stated. It also showed a discussion of the Holocaust that transitioned into a comparison of Nazi Germany with arguments for legal abortion.

Personhood USA claims it sent the video to 600,000 people in Mississippi before the referendum.

The Anti-Defamation League called it “one of the most offensive and outrageous abuses of the memory of the Holocaust we have seen in years.”

Abraham Foxman, ADL national director and a Holocaust survivor, said it tried to make a case against abortion “through the cynical abuse of the memory of those killed in the Holocaust.

“Not only does the film try to assert a moral equivalency between the Holocaust and abortion, but it also brings Jews and Jewish history into the discussion and then calls on its viewers to repent and accept Jesus as their savior.”

Ray Comfort, creator of “180,” responed by saying the ADL should thank him, as doctors who charge for abortions are just like the Nazis who profited from killing Jews. “Every time Hitler killed a Jewish family he lined his pockets by seizing their assets… it amounted to billions of dollars, financing a third of his war-machine with the blood of the Jews.”

Comfort said “Germany lawfully slaughtered six million Jews. America has lawfully slaughtered nearly 10 times that amount.”

Days after the Mississippi defeat, Personhood USA claimed it has passed 1 million signatures nationally on petitions of support for its views. It also stated that a third effort to pass Personhood in Colorado will be launched.

On Nov. 22, Personhood USA released results of a Mississippi survey that showed only 8 percent voted no because they were pro-choice. The organization said it was “shocking” that 31 percent voted no because they thought the bill would ban in-vitro fertilization, which they claimed is a “direct lie from the Planned Parenthood camp.”

The statement claimed Planned Parenthood used Mississippians for Healthy Families as a front group and funneled taxpayer money into the state to defeat the amendment.

“My family and I invested years of work into this amendment, only to have the largest abortion provider in the country invade Mississippi with their anti-family rhetoric,” said Riley. “Knowing that Mississippi voted ‘no’ because of lies from our opponents makes me more determined than ever to try again, defending the rights of all Mississippians.”

He established a Personhood political action committee, and may launch another petition drive for another vote.

Personhood, coming soon to…

Alabama: Sen. Phil Williams of Rainbow City has already pre-filed legislation for the 2012 session that would set a vote for a constitutional amendment similar to Mississippi 26 — with one major difference. His bill defines persons to “include any human being from fertilization and implantation in the womb.”

The rewording is meant to answer some of the issues that were raised in the Mississippi vote, such as in vitro fertilization or some forms of birth control. But the national group Personhood USA has slammed the bill, saying it is watered down by including “implantation,” and vowed to work to defeat it.

Florida: A petition drive is underway for ballot access in the state. Personhood Florida needs almost 677,000 signatures. When the group has 10 percent of the signatures, they can go to the state Supreme Court for approval — amendments are judged at the start of the process, instead of being challenged closer to a vote or even after being approved by voters.

As of mid-November, the Florida group had 20,000 signatures. State law was recently changed to shorten a petition drive to two years; and with a Feb. 1 deadline looming for the November 2012 ballot, the organization is now looking at 2014.

Louisiana: In the October primary, Rep. John LaBruzzo was defeated. He introduced a Louisiana Personhood bill last spring, which was approved by the House Health and Welfare Committee, 10-2, but was sent to the House Appropriations Committee on a 65-30 vote in June, killing the bill.

Opposition to the Louisiana bill came from the Louisiana National Right to Life chapter, the state’s Catholic bishops and the Focus on the Family affiliate, LaBruzzo said.