Why You Should Give a Crap About Mississippi's Initiative 26

To borrow from Nina Simone: "...Mississippi, god DAMN."

Nov 1, 2011 at 3:00pm | Leave a comment

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Next Tuesday, the good people of Mississippi will be heading to the polls, and included on the ballot will be a measure called Initiative 26, better known as the “personhood” amendment. This amendment would add the following language to the state constitution: “The term ‘person’ or ‘persons’ shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the functional equivalent thereof.” 

If it weren’t obvious, this is an anti-abortion measure intended to define abortion at any stage as murder. The recognition of the tiniest cell as a “person” requires that said cell or cells have the same rights and responsibilities as you or I as full-blown humans. While this doesn’t mean that first-trimester fetuses will be called for jury duty anytime soon, it does mean that abortion of any kind, at any time, would become illegal in the state of Mississippi. This amendment seeks to eradicate all abortion in the state, making it unobtainable even in case of rape, incest, extreme fetal abnormalities, and in circumstances in which the life of the mother is at risk. 

As a practical matter, this will not have a huge impact on Mississippi itself: the National Abortion Federation lists no member providers in the whole state, and I could only find one Mississippi-based provider online. It is likely that abortions are happening in hospitals and doctor’s offices in certain circumstances, but the state is clearly lacking in medical professionals willing to identify themselves explicitly as abortion providers. 

According to the Guttmacher Institute, as of 2008, 91 percent of women living in Mississippi had no local access to an abortion provider. Unsurprisingly, the abortion rate in Mississippi is far lower than the rest of the country, at 4.6 percent compared to the national rate of 19.6 percent.

So why should those of us not living in Mississippi be concerned? There are a number of reasons. The first and most obvious is that if this amendment passes in Mississippi, it will galvanize anti-abortion initiatives in other states, and possibly threaten federal law on the subject, should the movement become a national one. If these amendments pass and are upheld, then it sets up a new attack on Roe v. Wade, the precedent that ensures abortion rights in the United States.

Secondly, this measure would have an impact reaching far beyond abortion. It would further render any birth control that might interfere with a fertilized egg illegal. That means both the morning-after pill, better known as “Plan B,” and Intrauterine Devices (IUDs) would technically no longer be legal means of birth control under the new law. 

More than that, this measure would have a catastrophic impact on many popular infertility treatments, most specifically in-vitro fertilization (IVF). As IVF involves the fertilization of many eggs in the expectation that only one or two will successfully implant, this means the process necessarily involves the destruction of fertilized eggs that are not needed -- “people,” according to this new legislation. Thus, the amendment would threaten the legality of IVF, which has helped untold numbers of people to successfully have children of their own.

Taken to its natural extreme, this line of thinking can even lead to murder charges against women who have miscarriages. Although this idea may sound unthinkable on the surface, it’s already happening in the United States, as recently covered in The Guardian.  

In one example, Rennie Gibbs is charged with murder for using cocaine while pregnant, even though whether her miscarriage was directly related to her drug use remains unproven. Gibbs was 15 at the time she became pregnant, and could now be facing life in prison if convicted. Unsurprisingly, Gibbs is a resident of Mississippi.

Elsewhere, in Indiana, Bei Bei Shuai attempted suicide while pregnant in 2010. She consumed rat poison and survived, but the attempt resulted in her daughter being born early, and eventually dying four days later. She was arrested in March of this year, and remains in jail facing murder charges; while Shuai maintains she was only trying to kill herself, the prosecution asserts her intention was to kill her fetus. 

I can only imagine how much more prevalent these cases might become should Mississippi's idea of "personhood" become law, and it terrifies me.

“Personhood” legislation is not  frightening because it’s a brand new idea; this notion has bee hovering around the fringes of anti-abortion movements for a long time. It’s frightening because the bill in Mississippi is the first legislative action built on personhood that has a real chance of passing.

This movement reinforces an escalating cultural ideal in which the bodies of pregnant women are criminalized, in which they are public property, and in which the life of the woman carrying the fetus is ranked as secondary to the life of the fetus itself.

By focusing on the fetus in the equation -- the alleged defenseless victim in need of legal protections -- this movement deflects attention away from the fact that the legislation it advocates has dramatic implications for the rights of all women to make their own decisions about what they do with their bodies. This legislation turns a uterus into a public square.

This kind of thinking also creates a slippery slope. If we are going to hold women legally accountable for drug addiction while pregnant, where does it stop? Might it next be made illegal for women to smoke cigarettes during pregnancy, given that smoking can lead to birth defects? Then, perhaps, alcohol? Maybe we should then pass laws against women using hair dye while knocked up, or eating hot dogs? Maybe pregnant women should be prevented from riding in or driving cars, given that accidents kill more than 40,000 people every year? 

It is remarkably easy to quickly take this to an absurd degree, because at what point do we decide which risky behavior is worth legislating? You can be opposed to any or all of these behaviors, for yourself, or for people you know; you can lecture pregnant strangers on the evils of their smoking habit, and you can instruct them on the dangers of cold lunchmeats. However, it’s difficult to argue that we should be legislating all of these behaviors in the name of “protecting” a fetus. 

And Mississippi’s “personhood” amendment is not about fetuses, not really. It’s not about protecting anyone, and it’s not about ensuring anyone’s rights. It is about legislating women’s bodies, pure and simple. It is about subjugating the importance of an individual woman’s free will as less important than the survival of the fetus she may or may not want to carry and deliver. 

What can we do about this particular legislation? Not much, unfortunately. People living in Mississippi can vote against it. The rest of us can only talk about it, with as many people as possible, and make clear the broader implications of this initiative, and its far-reaching effects on women’s rights in general.

You do not have to be in favor of abortion to oppose this law; you simply have to be in favor of preserving a woman’s right to self-determination and privacy. After all, if you value these things in your own life, how can it ever be OK to take them away from someone else?