A national effort to put abortion bans into state constitutions is looking for its first victory next month in Mississippi, where voters are being asked to approve an amendment declaring that life begins when a human egg is fertilized.
Supporters hope the so-called personhood initiative will succeed in a Bible Belt state that already has some of the nation's toughest abortion regulations and only a single clinic where the procedures are performed.
The initiative is endorsed by both candidates in a governor's race that's being decided the same day. While Mississippi is the only state with such an amendment on the ballot this fall, efforts are under way to put the question to voters in at least four other states in 2012.
Any victory at the state level would likely be short-lived since a life-at-fertilization amendment would conflict with the U.S. Constitution. Leaders of the movement say their ultimate goal is to provoke a court fight to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that established a legal right to abortion.
Opponents say defining life as beginning at fertilization could block some common forms of birth control and deter Mississippi physicians from performing in vitro fertilization because they'd fear criminal charges if an embryo doesn't survive. They also say supporters of the amendment are trying to impose their religious beliefs on others to force women to carry unwanted pregnancies, including those caused by rape or incest.
Those campaigning for the Mississippi initiative — including the Tupelo-based American Family Association — are using glowing images of babies in utero or chubby-cheeked newborns, and say they're trying to end a sin that blights America.
The proposal being decided Nov. 8 has divided the medical community and bewildered some physicians.
"We feel like the docs and the patients are getting caught in the middle of a war between the anti-abortion folks and the pro-choice folks," said Dr. Wayne Slocum of Tupelo, head of the Mississippi section of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, a group that opposes the initiative.
George Cochran, a University of Mississippi constitutional law professor, said even if Mississippi voters adopt the initiative, he believes it's unlikely to ever be enforced because it's certain to be challenged and overturned in court.
"Suits are brought, they have it declared unconstitutional," Cochran said. "It's not very difficult."
Cochran said there's a 5-4 majority on the U.S. Supreme Court now to uphold Roe v. Wade. That and other Supreme Court rulings have required states to allow abortions up to the point that a fetus could survive outside of the womb — approximately 24 weeks.
Still, a win at the ballot box "will send shockwaves around this country, then around the world," predicted Keith Mason, co-founder of Personhood USA, the Colorado group that's pushing the petition drives around the country.
Mason's group eventually wants to amend the U.S. Constitution to say life begins at fertilization, and he hopes the push for state constitutional amendments will create momentum. Similar "human life" amendments have been introduced on the federal level repeatedly over the past 30 years and have failed.
Thad Hall, a University of Utah professor who has written a book about abortion politics, said people who want to outlaw abortion are seeking state-by-state changes that often put the question to voters, rather than federal changes.
"What you see here is a kind of difference between slowness and difficulty in policy changes on federal level ... and the ease with which states can change public policy," Hall said.
People are gathering signatures in Florida, Montana, Ohio and Oregon to try to put personhood initiatives on ballots starting in 2012, Mason said. He said similar efforts will begin soon in eight other states.
Personhood Ohio said Friday that it had reached its first threshold toward the 2012 ballot by gathering more than 1,000 signatures, allowing it to start knocking on doors to gather the rest of the 385,000 signatures it needs.
Previously, Mason's group got amendments on Colorado ballots in 2008 and 2010, but they were rejected. Some groups that oppose abortion, including Eagle Forum, opposed the Colorado efforts, saying the ballot initiatives only enriched Planned Parenthood and other groups that support abortion rights.
In Mississippi, the state's largest Christian denomination, the Mississippi Baptist Convention, is backing the personhood proposal through its lobbying arm, the Christian Action Commission. "The Lord expects us to value life, even as he does," the commission's executive director, Jimmy Porter, says in a video.
The state already has several laws regulating abortions, including parental or judicial consent for any minor to get an abortion and mandatory in-person counseling and a 24-hour wait before any woman can terminate a pregnancy.
The Mississippi State Medical Association says it is not supporting the initiative — a step short of actively opposing it.
"I agree with the sentiments of this movement; but, I can't agree with throwing a physician into a system where the decision will not be malpractice but wrongful death or murder," the group's president and family physician Dr. Thomas E. Joiner wrote in a letter to members.
Slocum, who leads the ob-gyn group, said the amendment could ban forms of birth control that prevent a fertilized egg from implanting, such as the IUD or the morning-after pill, and that it might limit physicians' willingness to perform in vitro fertilization.
The American Society for Reproductive Medicine also opposes the amendment, saying it would "unduly restrict an infertile patient's right to make decisions about embryos created as part of the in vitro fertilization process."
Dr. Freda Bush of Jackson, an obstetrician-gynecologist who's campaigning for the ballot measure, said she believes the initiative would not affect hormonal birth control pills or curtail in vitro fertilization. She said opponents of the ballot measure are spreading rumors to scare people.
The Mississippi initiative has already survived a legal effort to keep it off the ballot. One of the plaintiffs was Cristen Hemmins of Oxford, who was raped by two strangers in 1991 in Jackson.
She said she didn't become pregnant through the rape, but she's insulted that any woman who does should have to carry out an unwanted pregnancy, whether it came about through rape or other circumstances.
"I just think it's a travesty in America that the government could make me bear a child that I don't want to have or that could endanger my life as a victim of rape or a violent crime," Hemmins said.