'Personhood' Divides Anti-Abortion Groups : Shots - Health News Some foes of abortion haven't supported efforts to define legal personhood as beginning with the fertilization of a human egg because of concerns about unintended consequences.
NPR logo

'Personhood' Divides Anti-Abortion Groups

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/142184556/142184367" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'Personhood' Divides Anti-Abortion Groups

'Personhood' Divides Anti-Abortion Groups

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/142184556/142184367" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Guy Raz. Voters were expected to make Mississippi the first state to confer protected legal status to fertilized human eggs. Instead, yesterday they made it the second state to reject a so-called personhood amendment to its constitution. NPR's Julie Rovner reports that one possible reason is that the effort has divided the anti-abortion community.

JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: In the end, it shouldn't have been all that surprising that the amendment to declare every human being a person at, quote, "the moment of fertilization," might have some trouble at the polls, even in a strongly anti-abortion state like Mississippi. On the one hand, it had the support of the state's Republican lieutenant governor, now Governor-elect Phil Bryant. Here's part of an ad he made.


ROVNER: But on the other hand, the even more popular outgoing Republican governor, Haley Barbour, expressed doubts about the measure. Here's how he put it in an interview on MSNBC.

GOVERNOR HALEY BARBOUR: I believe life begins at conception. Unfortunately, this personhood amendment doesn't say that. It says life begins at fertilization or cloning or the functional equivalent thereof. That ambiguity is striking a lot of pro-life people here as concerning.

ROVNER: Barbour later said he voted for the amendment. But it seems that many other anti-abortion voters didn't. With nearly all the votes in, it failed by a hefty 16 percentage point margin. Freda Bush, a Jackson, Mississippi, OB-GYN who unsuccessfully helped push the amendment, said she thought the measure's opponents prevailed by confusing voters.

DR. FREDA BUSH: The what-ifs, possibilities, it raised just enough doubt in the people's minds that even the pro-life people who know it's a baby were thinking differently.

ROVNER: Those what-ifs include requiring women with life-threatening illnesses to continue their pregnancies, since the amendment allowed no exceptions to what would be an absolute ban on abortion. Other possibilities: certain forms of birth control that can prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg, like the IUD and some formulations of the pill. Would those be considered murder? But it's not just voters in Mississippi who have serious doubts about the strategy of giving legal status to fertilized human eggs.

JAMES BOPP JR.: It's not only a waste of time but potentially very dangerous.

ROVNER: James Bopp Jr. is the general counsel for the National Right to Life Committee, one of the nation's oldest and largest anti-abortion groups. He says he agrees with the goal of declaring fertilized eggs people, but only after the Supreme Court strikes down Roe v. Wade, the ruling that currently makes most abortions legal nationwide. Bopp said if such a personhood amendment were to pass and reach the Supreme Court now, it would be immediately struck down. Even worse, he says, the current Supreme Court might end up reaffirming an even broader right to abortion.

JR.: And if they were given an opportunity to do that, then that would mean that all current restrictions on abortion, such as limiting funding or informed consent or parental notice, would be unconstitutional. So that would be a real major setback for the pro-life movement.

ROVNER: But fellow anti-abortion lawyer Matt Staver doubts that would happen. Staver says the Supreme Court's swing abortion vote, Justice Anthony Kennedy, has gone both ways on the issue in recent years.

MATT STAVER: So I can't really predict which way he's going to go at the end of the day. And I can't predict who's going to be on the court when this gets there. But what I can say is that this is, in my view, the right strategy.

ROVNER: Meanwhile, backers of the Mississippi amendment say they'll press forward, trying again in that state and others as well. Jennifer Mason is with the group Personhood USA.

JENNIFER MASON: We are not going to be defined by one election. As long as human beings are being treated as property, we will continue to ensure that they get personhood rights, that those rights are recognized just as the rest of us enjoy.

ROVNER: The group is working to get similar amendments on the ballot in as many as a dozen other states in 2012. Julie Rovner, NPR News.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.