As Mississippians line up at the polls Tuesday to vote on a historic ballot measure that would give full legal rights to undeveloped zygotes, the "personhood" movement has gained momentum in nine other states across the country and in Congress.
The controversial Proposition 26 in Mississippi would redefine the word "person" in the state constitution to include "every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the functional equivalent thereof." In addition to effectively criminalizing abortion, the measure would ban intrauterine devices and certain forms of birth control, complicate the legality of stem cell research and in vitro fertilization and expose pregnant women and their doctors to daunting lawsuits and investigations.
According to Personhood USA, the campaign is currently gathering signatures to put similar measures on the ballot in Montana, Florida and Oregon. Personhood advocates have filed personhood language measures in Ohio, Nevada and California, and lawmakers have initiated or soon plan to initiate equivalent legislation in Alabama, Wisconsin and Michigan. Voters defeated a personhood measure twice in Colorado -- the only state besides Mississippi that has gathered enough signatures to force a vote.
The movement is also gaining momentum in Congress: GOP lawmakers have introduced three bills that would extend personhood rights to fertilized eggs. Sixty-three House Republicans signed onto Rep. Paul Broun's (R-Ga.) "Sanctity of Human Life Act," which mirrors the Mississippi personhood language. GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann (Minn.) cosponsored Rep. Duncan Hunter's (R-Calif.) personhood bill, which would allow "the prosecution of any woman for the death of her unborn child," and Mississippi's own Sen. Roger Wicker (R) introduced a bill in the Senate that defines a person from the moment of fertilization.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, warned about the consequences of a personhood measure in a conference call with reporters last week. Personhood Florida has gained about 20,000 signatures so far in its effort to get a measure on the ballot there.
"We're sounding the alarm bells now because it's absolutely critical that Floridians understand just how extreme this personhood campaign is," she said.
The personhood measures could cause legal mayhem for the states. A statewide ban on abortion would challenge Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that prevents states from banning abortion before the fetus is viable outside the womb, and legal experts charge that the personhood language is too abstract to be defended or properly enforced.
Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union have already filed two lawsuits challenging personhood initiatives in Nevada this year, charging that the language is vague and misleading. The ACLU already defeated a personhood measure in a Nevada district court last year, and it is confident that the judge will rule the same way on the current cases.
"You can't propose a ballot measure that encompasses more than a single subject," said Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, an ACLU attorney on the case. "In trying to ban abortion, ban treatment for ectopic pregnancies, ban stem cell research, ban IVF, these measures clearly encompass more than one subject."
Les Riley, the leader of Mississippi's personhood movement, has said legal challenges are welcome and that he is hoping lawyers will take the personhood law up to the Supreme Court. Riley argues that the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down when scientists were less clear about the moment when life begins -- it is now due for an update.
"We think that God has already told us when life begins, and science has confirmed it, and the court has just not dealt with it," Riley told HuffPost in September. "We hope the Mississippi voters will force them to take another look at that decision."
The vote in Mississippi is looking extremely close so far. According to a Public Policy Polling survey released Monday, 45 percent of voters support the initiative and 44 percent oppose it.
Jennifer Mason, a spokesperson for Personhood USA, said she believes Mississippians will vote for the measure if they are able to tune out all the buzz about its potential consequences.
"It's just one sentence that says every human being is a person," Mason told HuffPost on Tuesday. "We're out combating the lies and getting the truth out, so we'll see what happens."
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