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Progressive Faith Groups Need to Speak Up Against Personhood Amendment in Mississippi

Ballot Measure Would Erase Women’s Reproductive Rights

SOURCE: AP/Rogelio V. Solis

"Personhood" supporters gather at a prayer rally on June 6, 2011, at the state capitol in Jackson, Mississippi, to concentrate their efforts to get a proposed "personhood" constitutional amendment offered to voters.

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Mississippians will go to the polls on November 8 to decide whether a fertilized egg has the full legal rights of a person. They will vote on the Mississippi Personhood Amendment, Ballot Measure 26, whose radical premise, if approved, will upend women’s health, established law, medical judgment, religious liberty, and common sense.

If the Personhood Amendment becomes law, common methods of birth control will be illegal in Mississippi. Certain forms of in vitro fertilization will be illegal. Abortion will be illegal—with no exceptions even for rape, incest, or the life of the woman. And law enforcement will be authorized to criminally investigate women who’ve had a miscarriage to make sure they didn’t intentionally induce an abortion, which would be murder.

But that’s not all. The word “person” is used more than 9,400 times in Mississippi legal codes. If the term is expanded to include a fertilized egg—even one that hasn’t attached to a woman’s uterus, which half of all fertilized eggs never do—the resulting legal chaos, increased expense, and human suffering will be staggering. For instance, issues of citizenship, taxation, equal protection under the law, and child neglect could all be expanded to include a fertilized egg.

Supporters are clothing the measure in religious rhetoric

Proponents of the Personhood Amendment—perhaps realizing they are on shaky legal ground—are drenching their arguments in religious and “moral” language. Brad Prewitt, the executive director of the Yes on 26 campaign, says, “Personhood is bigger than just shutting abortion clinics; it’s an opportunity for people to say that we’re made in the image of God.”

The state’s largest Christian denomination, the Mississippi Baptist Convention, is backing the amendment through its lobby arm, the Christian Action Commission. In a video, its director Jimmy Porter says, “The Lord expects us to value life, even as he does.” And campaign materials claim, “Finally, and most importantly: if Mississippians vote Yes on Amendment 26 we will be honoring God and loving our neighbors in our law system.”

Amendment supporters, in addition to claiming a monopoly on God and morality, dishonestly portray their opponents as anti-Christian. They produced a campaign video called “Pro-abortionists Mock God in MS Personhood Debate,” which selectively edits opponents’ statements in order to misconstrue their words. The video ends with, “Vote for Life.”

Such heavy reliance on religious language is no accident. Mississippi has been called the most religious state in America. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 91 percent of state residents have an absolutely certain belief in God, compared to 71 percent of the general population. Sixty percent attend church at least once a week, compared to 39 percent of the general population.

People of faith do oppose it but lack organization

What proponents of the amendment don’t want you to know is that many of their opponents are people of faith who have not ceded religion and morality to the extreme right.

For instance, Episcopal Bishop Duncan M. Gray III said in an open letter that he has a passion for the sanctity of life but in a sinful world, choices are often not between clear-cut good and evil but between the lesser of two evils. He says that a dangerous consequence of the law would be “the moral nightmares of doctors” who could no longer give preference to saving the life of a pregnant woman whose fertilized egg was lodged in her fallopian tube.

In addition, Atlee Breeland, a Christian mother who is not pro-choice, started a blog, “Parents Against MS 26,” because she worries about the impact of the law on infertility treatments, such as forms of in vitro fertilization where multiple eggs are fertilized. She also makes a distinction between recognizing and valuing “unborn life” and granting that life full legal personhood.

And groups no less than the Roman Catholic bishops and National Right to Life have said they will not support the amendment because its radical nature could set back their efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Unfortunately, efforts by people of faith opposed to the Personhood Amendment are underfunded, uncoordinated, and virtually invisible in the public debate. As a result they are unable to effectively challenge the outlandish and insulting claims of those pushing for a “yes” vote on the Personhood Amendment—claims that supporting the amendment means loving God and being a good Christian, while opposing it is a sin.

Of course that isn’t true. The only thing conservative claims prove is that if you repeat a lie often enough, people start to believe it. In fact, the lies are a form of idolatry—of worshipping a microscopic zygote rather than valuing the God-given conscience and life of a fully formed human being. The lies are also a form of tyranny. By misleading the public about the intent and effect of this law, a small group is forcing its radical ideology on all those who live in Mississippi.

And make no mistake, these are extremist views. The Personhood Amendment was drafted by neo-secessionist Les Riley who also organized the signature drive to get the amendment on the ballot and campaigned for it around the state last spring with an inflammatory “Conceived in Rape Tour.”

Two years ago Riley was a blogger for Christian Exodus, a secession movement in South Carolina whose goal was to form “an independent Christian nation that will survive after the decline and fall of the financially and morally bankrupt American empire.” According to Mother Jones, Christian Exodus was created after the 2003 Supreme Court decision, Lawrence v. Texas, struck down antisodomy laws.

What can be done

In such a hostile climate, faith groups seeking to defeat the Personhood Amendment in Mississippi might look to Colorado, where a broad-based coalition of faith-based and secular groups defeated Personhood Amendments in 2008 and 2010 by a 3-1 margin both times.

How did they do it? They joined with allies, coordinated their efforts, developed messages for their communities, and didn’t cede moral ground. Their coalition—The Protect Families, Protect Choice Coalition—had more than 60 members, including doctors, nurses, community groups, legal groups, advocacy organizations, youth groups, reproductive justice groups, and religious leaders and groups, including the state chapter of Interfaith Alliance.

Coalition members went on bus tours, knocked on doors, held rallies and community events, did press conferences, met with editorial boards, held faith events, and used social media.

In their messaging, faith-based groups emphasized the importance of family and of a woman being able to make important decisions about her own health care with her family, doctor, conscience, and God, rather than have the government make those decisions for her. The coalition was coordinated, funded, organized, strategic—and successful.

Such is not the case in Mississippi. In addition to the lack of a strong faith voice opposing the Personhood Amendment, there is no political opposition from most Democrats in the state who seem afraid to offend the state’s antichoice majority. The state Democratic Party has refused to take a position on the amendment, and most members of the state Senate refuse to publicly discuss it. Even worse, the state’s attorney general, Democrat Jim Hood, has endorsed the amendment and says he will support it if it’s challenged.

Many opponents fear the amendment is likely to pass. It makes you want to ask personhood advocates: If you’re so devoted to protecting life, what about infant mortality, undernourished babies, children in poverty, pregnant women with no prenatal care, homeless families, and the elderly who can’t afford their medication? Does your Christian concern include them or does it stop once they exit the womb?

Here’s the bottom line: Mississippi’s Personhood Amendment is a dangerous distraction from the many pressing needs of the state’s families and a distortion of religion. If passed, it will wreak havoc on people’s lives.

Sally Steenland is Director and Eleni Towns is the Special Assistant of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. For more on this initiative, please see its project page.

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