Could birth control become contraband in Mississippi?
That's a possibility if Mississippi voters decide to pass the Personhood Initiative on the ballot this November.
The initiative would redefine "person" as "all human beings from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the functional equivalent thereof." The logical extension of this could outlaw abortions, birth control, in vitro fertilization, and embryonic stem cell research, and offer a legal challenge to Roe v. Wade.
The amendment is part of a nationwide push by the Christian organization Personhood USA to put such initiatives on ballots across the country. No such initiative has been passed yet.
"The initiative makes a fertilized egg a person. They are trying to define pregnancy as when an egg is fertilized," said Barry Chase, CEO of Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region, which sees hundreds of patients from Mississippi each year. "Pregnancy, according to medicine, does not occur until the egg is fertilized and implanted in the wall of the uterus and is there for a period of time."
If passed, the initiative could outlaw many forms of birth control, including IUDs and any other method that prevents the fertilized egg from implanting. "The way this constitutional amendment is written, it would make a normal miscarriage the same as an abortion, allowing the state to investigate," Chase said. "This would be tragic for so many families."
In vitro fertilization would not be outlawed per se, but the loss of embryos in the process of implantation in the uterus could result in criminal liability. In fact, the amendment raises the possibility of criminal liability for any failure to implant, including miscarriage.
Having garnered 100,000 signatures to be put up for a vote, Measure 26 will bypass the legislature and go directly to the Mississippi ballot on November 8th.
"If people understood what the ramifications were, they couldn't possibly vote for it," Chase said. "The Mississippi legislature [will have] wholesale entry into everybody's bedroom and every woman's body."
"So many people have no idea that it's even on the ballot," says Cristen Hemmins, one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit brought against Personhood Mississippi last August. "And when people first see 'defining a fertilized egg as a person,' they think, 'Well, I'm against abortion. That sounds good.' I'm trying to make sure Mississippians realize that it's acceptable to be pro-life and totally against this initiative because it goes so much [further] than abortion."
Along with another plantiff, Deborah Hughes, and with the guidance of Planned Parenthood, the ACLU of Mississippi, and the Center for Reproductive Rights, Hemmins filed a lawsuit to put a stop to the initiative.
Hemmins has a personal understanding of the initiative's implications: When she was 20 years old, she was abducted, raped, and shot twice while escaping her assailants.
"I did not get pregnant, but if I had gotten pregnant, I'm not sure my body could have withstood sustaining that pregnancy," Hemmins said. "One of the bullets actually went in and out of my uterus. But if this initiative had been in place, I would have had no options. There are no exceptions for incest, rape, or ectopic pregnancies."
Instead of attacking the content of the initiative, the plaintiffs focused on a Mississippi law that states that ballot initiatives cannot be used to change the Bill of Rights.
A Mississippi trial court disagreed, siding with Personhood Mississippi and stating that the plaintiffs had failed in their attempt to "restrict the citizenry's right to amend the Constitution." The Mississippi Supreme Court upheld the trial court's ruling, stating that the court could not review a ballot initiative before the actual vote takes place.
In an online poll conducted by the Mississippi Business Journal, 96 percent of Mississippians responded that they do not believe that birth control should be outlawed. However, Hemmins still believes the initiative could pass in her state if voters don't understand the implications.
"I've heard people say, 'Oh Mississippi, it's so backwards. Who cares?'" Hemmins said. "But nationally, this really matters because it only takes one lawsuit getting through to the Supreme Court, and as it stands now, they would overturn Roe v. Wade in a heartbeat."
Calls to Personhood Mississippi were not returned.