WASHINGTON -- Mississippians are set to vote on a ballot measure this November that would redefine the word "person" in the state constitution to include undeveloped embryos. Members of the medical and legal communities have raised concerns that the amendment could have unforeseen, far-reaching implications for women's health, such as banning certain kinds of birth control, in vitro fertilization and stem cell research.
But state Democrats have been cautious of publicly opposing or even questioning the amendment for fear of alienating Mississippi's pro-life majority.
In defining a legal human being from the moment of fertilization, Initiative 26, often called the "Personhood Amendment," would criminalize abortion in Mississippi, with no exceptions for rape, incest or life of the mother. Personhood USA, the advocacy group pushing the amendment, and the Yes on 26 campaign are painting the issue as a black-and-white abortion ban.
"Plain and simple, this seeks to establish human life in the womb," Greg Sanders, the executive director of the Yes on 26 campaign, told HuffPost. "Obviously there's no exception for rape and incest. It's a human life, no matter how it's created."
The American Civil Liberties Union has already challenged the personhood amendment in court, and it will likely face a host of other legal challenges if voters approve it in the November 8 election. In addition to flying in the face of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that prohibits states from banning abortions before fetal viability, the measure could ban certain forms of birth control that thin the lining of the uterus, thereby preventing an embryo from being able to attach.
Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, says the language could also have a whole host of legal implications, including some that have nothing to do with women's health.
"What does it mean for property or inheritance law? What happens when you're trying to make districts for voting, and you have to consider fertilized eggs as legal persons?" she told HuffPost. "The meaning of the provision could come up in any number of lawsuits."
The Yes on 26 campaign says the amendment is not intended to outlaw birth control or in vitro fertilization -- only abortion and cloning. But Sanders acknowledged in an interview with HuffPost that "there are some things that will have to be worked out at a later date" after the amendment has passed.
The question is whether women in Mississippi are willing to trust politicians to interpret the amendment, after the fact, in such a way that protects their access to birth control pills and potentially life-saving abortions. Cristen Hemmins, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit challenging the amendment, said if the measure had been law when she was brutally raped by two men 20 years ago, the state would have forced her to carry the child she conceived.
"I would have had no options," Hemmins, 40, told HuffPost. "I just think it's a travesty that the government would force me to bear a child that I didn't want."
According to Hemmins, she was shot twice as she tried to escape the car where the rapists held her. One of the bullets pierced her uterus.
"I'm not sure my body could have withstood a pregnancy," she said. "My health and my life would have been at stake."
Hemmins and the No on 26 campaign said they are frustrated with the majority of Democratic politicians in Mississippi for refusing to publicly oppose the amendment.
"There's been a lot of 'off the record' sentiment, but it's really disappointing to not see state leadership publicly talk about the shortcomings and dangers of this initiative for the women and families of Mississippi," said Leola Reis, a spokesperson for the No on 26 campaign.
The personhood measure actually has a fair amount of support from Mississippi Democrats. Jim Hood, the Democratic Attorney General, endorsed the amendment in a statement and said he would defend it if it were challenged. A spokesperson for Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree, the Democratic candidate for governor, told HuffPost that that he supports the amendment as well, despite his "concerns about some of the ramifications."
But of all the Democrats in the State Senate, only two were willing to discuss the ballot measure at all, when called by HuffPost. Bob Dearing (Natchez) said he is "more than likely" going to vote for it himself, even though he recognizes that it's legally problematic.
"I'm not out there pushing it one way or the other, because I've got my own race to run," he told HuffPost. "It's going to be met with a court challenge -- you know that, and I know that. But when we get to 'right to life' issues, there's very little debate on them and they usually pass pretty handily."
State Sen. Deborah Dawkins (D-West Harrison County) was the only Democrat willing to publicly oppose the amendment, calling it "completely crazy and unenforceable." She said that while she normally defers to her constituents on issues like this, she can't bring herself to support a measure this extreme.
"My position on anything tends to be what the position of the people who elected me is, but sometimes there are these hot-button issues that people are not well-informed about because they don't know the whole story," she told HuffPost. "I don't think they understand that it would put an end to stem cell research and in vitro, and it is to the Republicans' benefit for them not to understand. But surely some other people besides me realize this is about controlling women, and I don't particularly like to be controlled."
Dawkins said that because of where she is in life, having grandchildren, being financially stable and nearing the end of her career, she is able to be more open about expressing her opinions on reproductive choice issues than her Democratic colleagues, who have more at stake.
"They pick their battles," she said. "They're at a different place in their life, they've got to have a job."
It's also possible that Mississippi Democrats are just more socially conservative than Democratic lawmakers in other states, many of whom have spent a disproportionate amount of their 2011 legislative sessions fighting anti-abortion and anti-family planning legislation. A spokesperson for the Mississippi Democratic Party, which has declined to take a position on Initiative 26, said the issue is not as simple as politicians caring only about their own reelection.
"There are Democrats in blue districts that support the initiative," said Rickey Cole, executive director of the state party. "This issue is not a litmus test as to whether one is a good Democrat or not, and I don’t know if it’s a good litmus test to see if one would get reelected or not. You can practice political science and quote Edmund Burke all day long, but it's really just a matter of a person's decision."
Despite the overall ambivalence of the Democratic Party, opponents of the amendment are holding out hope that at least one or two public officials will step up and defend women's health.
"Mississippi has dreadfully high rates of STDs, unplanned pregnancies, low birthweight babies, women without health insurance, and tons of other really important health issues that need the attention of the electorate instead of this divisive and misleading initiative," said Reis. "It's a selfish and shortsighted move on behalf of the elected officials to put politics before the health of women and families."
Jordan Howard contributed reporting.