Mississippi voters will be allowed to decide on a ballot measure that defines "personhood" from the moment of fertilization, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled last week. The measure could potentially outlaw abortions, birth control, in vitro fertilization and stem cell research across the state.
Measure 26, which will bypass the legislature and go straight to a popular ballot vote, redefines the term "person" as it appears throughout Mississippi's Bill of Rights to include "all human beings from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof." The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, Planned Parenthood and the Center for Reproductive Rights filed a lawsuit against the proposal earlier this year, not based on its content or constitutionality, but because Mississippi state law says a ballot initiative cannot be used to change the Bill of Rights.
The Mississippi Supreme Court rejected the lawsuit in a 7-2 ruling, saying that it had no power to review any ballot initiative before the actual vote takes place.
"We didn't lose on the merits of the case, but what's disappointing is that it means the measure does go on the ballot that could later be held unconstitutional," said Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, an ACLU attorney on the case.
Les Riley, the founder of Personhood Mississippi, whose primary mission is to get Measure 26 passed, told HuffPost that he believes the ballot initiative is legal and valid because it does not alter the state constitution, but simply defines a particular word in it that should have been defined by the Supreme Court in the 38 years since Roe v. Wade.
"The court made the right decision," he said. "In the Roe decision, [Justice Henry] Blackmun said, 'We're not gonna answer the question of whether the fetus is a person,' and so in the 38 years since, we have had a tragic number of abortions. We think that God has already told us when life begins, and science has confirmed it, and the court has just not dealt with it, so we're hoping the people of Mississippi make the right decision."
Abortion-rights advocates say they worry that the language of the initiative is so broad and vague that its effects could go far beyond outlawing abortion. The measure could be interpreted to outlaw the birth control pill, for instance, because the pill can sometimes prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg. They also say the measure could outlaw in vitro fertilization, stem cell research and emergency contraception for rape victims, as well as discourage doctors from performing a lifesaving miscarriage treatment when a woman is suffering from potentially-fatal pregnancy complications.
Kolbi-Molinas said the measure could have unintended consequences that reach beyond reproductive health rights altogether.
"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? The meaning of the provision could come up in any number of lawsuits," she said.
So far, Mississippi is the only state with a "personhood" measure on the ballot this year, but CNN reported that similar initiatives are being planned in Florida, Montana and Ohio. Colorado voters have twice rejected personhood measures by a strong majority.
Riley said he believes the measure will be successful in Mississippi despite its potentially far-reaching consequences.
"I can't speak to all the possible effects, obviously," he said, "but it would ensure equal rights for all human beings regardless of their developmental status, it would outlaw abortion, and it would protect our women and children."
The ballot vote is scheduled for Nov. 8.