At first glance, Personhood USA seems like the perfect vehicle to boost Republican turnout just like banning gay marriage did in 2004. But Sarah Flowers, the lead consultant to the campaign that stopped Personhood USA in Mississippi last November thinks she's found the silver bullet to stop them: having honest conversations with voters.
I know. At first I thought she was crazy, too.
In an effort not only to ban abortion but also to defeat Barack Obama, Personhood USA is working in 17 states to bestow civil rights on fertilized eggs and to protect them in the criminal code. Initially, this idea appeals strongly to pro-life voters, but that support quickly fractures when people start talking to each other about what it would mean.
"They think that it could be a good turnout model, but it actually isn't," Flowers told me recently in between conference calls. "The more conversations you have, the more it's person to person, the stronger it is on our side."
Flowers spends a lot of time on conference calls these days trying to replicate her success in Mississippi, which is the last place in America you'd expect a pro-life initiative to fail. Initiative 26, backed by Personhood USA, went from a 31-point lead in early polling to a 16-point loss two months later.
Personhood USA losing a pro-life ballot initiative in Mississippi was the biggest upset since the Miracle on Ice in 1980.
The "No on 26" campaign did something rare in American politics. They ignored traditional partisan fault lines and respected the religious views of voters. Instead of paternalistic badgering bent on making voters submit, the "No on 26" campaign struck up conversations "to meet them where they were," said Flowers.
This required the "No on 26" campaign in Mississippi to train every volunteer not only in non-confrontational conversation techniques but also to equip them to have informed discussions about human reproduction. What resulted from all of these conversations was what Flowers proudly called "the most sophisticated, largest sex-ed conversation Mississippi has ever seen."
"No on 26" sent trained volunteers to evangelical churches and the state fair to start conversations about sex. They would talk not in contrived town halls but in pews and checkout lines. Sometimes people would call them baby killers and stomp off. But other times they would get people out of their partisan trenches and into the unclaimed territory of mutual understanding and respect. Like I said, groundbreaking stuff.
"What pro-life means to every person who says they're pro-life is different," said Flowers. "This is personal. It's about what happens in doctors rooms, in bedrooms, in marriages."
While conservative voters approached personhood as an abortion issue, conversations got them thinking about their lives. Doctors worried about committing a crime if they didn't know whether an unconscious patient was pregnant. Religious leader opposed the idea of the criminal code interfering with their counseling.
"This issue brings out a lot of protectiveness that fathers feel toward their daughters and husbands feel for their wives," said Flowers who cited a nightmarish list of what-ifs that included detached placentas and ectopic pregnancies. These men did not want the criminal code to prevent doctors from saving the lives of their daughters and wives.
But the personhood movement has also exposed how much hormonal birth control has become an established part of life. Flowers cited statistics that 80% of women use the pill or other forms of hormonal birth control at some point during their reproductive years. The personhood movement pegs the start of life at an egg's fertilization, and because some types of hormonal birth control prevents that egg from implanting in the lining of the uterus, passing the personhood amendment would probably ban birth control.
Flowers said their polling showed this was an "incredibly unpopular" idea. The prospect of banning the pill even struck pro-life Mississippians as big government run amok. Among women, it struck a "you have got to be kidding me" note. Pro-life men hated the government intrusion.
Husbands, said Flowers, had another reaction that dealt with "the condom part. In some cases, men would make the association that no birth control pills mean condoms or no sex."
Losing in Mississippi has not slowed Personhood USA. Flowers has to devote a big chunk of her professional life to playing "whack-a-mole" everywhere this comes up.
"In state after state we're going to have to do that same education effort," said Flowers.
And that means a lot more honest conversations with real people.