Battle lines are drawn on “personhood amendment”

Voters in Mississippi will have a history-making opportunity when they get to the polls next Tuesday, as they will be asked to vote on when, exactly, human life begins.

Mississippi is taking the lead as the first state to let voters decide on a proposed “personhood amendment,” which would amend the state’s constitution to define an unborn fetus as a person, thus granting them all the rights of personhood and making abortion the equivalent of murder. The initiative, which will appear on Mississippi’s ballot as Proposition 26, is part of a national effort taking place in all 50 states.

As you might imagine, such a proposal is extremely controversial, and has raised all kinds of debates. What may be surprising, however, is just how many of the amendment’s opponents are firmly in the pro-life camp. Mississippi’s governor, who considers himself a strong believer in the fact that life begins at conception, has reservations about this amendment. And religious leaders, such as Episcopal bishop Duncan M. Gray, have also expressed concern about the amendment’s possible unintended consequences. In other words, the concept of defining an unborn fetus as a person may sound great, but have the amendment’s supporters really thought out what the implications might be in all possible scenarios?

Catholic bishops, including Jackson, Mississippi’s Bishop Joseph Latino, are also wary of the idea. Latino wrote in a statement that his diocese is officially taking a neutral stance, letting Catholics rely on their own conscience to decide if they should vote for or against the proposal.He does, however, offer the advice that being pro-life doesn’t mean supporting every pro-life initiative, and warns that in this case “the push for a state amendment could ultimately harm our efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade.”

Latino’s concern is rooted in the fact that such an amendment, even if passed by the state’s voters, would immediately face legal challenges. If a court strikes it down, it will set a new legal precedent that actually strengthens the Roe decision, making it ultimately more difficult to overturn.

The vote on Mississippi’s amendment comes at a time when a record number of laws are being passed at the state level that place regulations on abortion (stay tuned for an upcoming story in the January issue of U.S. Catholic that will look at this phenomenon in depth). But Mississippi’s proposal is among a smaller group of efforts in several states to place a broad ban on abortion, coming directly in conflict with the current federal law under Roe. Some may think that’s the way to go, but others are less concerned about what a state can pass successfully when they know the decision will ultimately come down to nine justices sitting in Washington.

Is that a battle the pro-life movement wants to take up now? That decision is going to be in the hands of Mississippi voters next Tuesday. And everyone with a stake in the debate over abortion rights will be watching very closely.