Women out front in defeat of MS abortion measure
JACKSON, Miss.—Defying Mississippi's conservative reputation, women voters appeared to lead the charge against a ballot measure that sought to ban abortion, and could've made some birth control illegal and deterred doctors from doing in vitro fertilization.
Supporters of the so-called personhood movement, which defines life as beginning at fertilization, vowed to push for the amendment in five other states next year, even though this Bible Belt state may have been its best chance at success.
While there were no exit polls to determine how men and women voted, women for weeks sounded off on social networking sites. In the well-mannered South, where things like sex and abortion are rarely discussed in polite company, women attended a rally last month with signs such as "I love my IUD" and "Keep your public policy off my private parts."
"Just from being in town all week and seeing several of the news reports, it looks like some women who had never carried a sign or worn a sandwich board were out there against it," said Mississippi State University political scientist Marty Wiseman.
Kathy Sikes of Jackson, a Catholic and an abortion opponent, voted against it. The mother of three grown daughters believed it would pave the way for government intrusion into private medical decisions such as birth control. She said also she grew tired of receiving email from men asking for her support.
"All the men are the ones who said to vote for it," Sikes said, chuckling. "Well, why not? Nothing off their back. They have the fun and then the woman raises the child if the child comes."
The measure divided the medical and religious communities in Mississippi and caused some of the most ardent abortion opponents, including Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, to waver with their support.
The Personhood USA group is trying to get the measure on 2012 ballots in Montana, Ohio, Oregon, Nevada and California. Leaders of the movement in Florida say they will attempt to get it on the 2014 ballot.
Co-founder Keith Mason believes the defeat in Mississippi will re-energize abortion opponents because it brought more attention to the measure.
"They've owned the movement themselves," he said. "It's in their hearts to fight for this."
Supporters said the proposal was intended to challenge the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that established a legal right to abortion.
Opponents said it would have made birth control, such as the morning-after pill or the intrauterine device, illegal. The ballot measure called for abortion to be prohibited "from the moment of fertilization" -- wording that opponents suggested would have deterred physicians from performing in vitro fertilization because they would fear criminal charges if an embryo doesn't survive.
Harvard law professor Glenn Cohen, who has researched abortion laws and ballot initiatives, said the Mississippi amendment was vague.
"I'm guessing the next time someone tries to present one of these kinds of amendments, they'll more carefully tailor the language so it very clearly only covers abortions, not these other things," Cohen said Wednesday. "In so doing, they neutralize part of the constituency that would be against it."
That's what has happened in Ohio, according to Dr. James Johnston, an osteopath who directs the personhood movement there.
"We changed the language of our amendment to let voters know it will not affect miscarriage, contraception or in vitro fertilization -- and those were effective at convincing genuine pro-lifers from not voting on Amendment 26," Johnston said.
Ohio still has a way to go before the amendment shows up there. Last week, the attorney general turned down the group's proposed wording. The language must be approved before supporters can collect the 385,000 valid signatures needed for the amendment to appear on 2012 ballots.
In Oregon, Colm Willis, a spokesman for the state's Right to Life chapter, said he is leery about a personhood amendment.
"Our view is there are more constructive ways to stop abortion," Willis said. "In Oregon, we don't have any regulation whatsoever, outside the Medical Board. We don't have any oversight of abortion clinics. We don't have any laws on restriction of abortion at all. We are more focused on making sure that women are safe and trying to restrict later-term abortions -- things that most people would agree with."
In Montana, a libertarian-minded state that has a history of viewing new government rules with skepticism, abortion rights have long been viewed as a marginal issue. A "personhood" amendment even failed earlier this year to get past a Legislature overwhelmingly controlled by Republicans. It was the third recent setback in the state.
Montana backers of the idea remain optimistic -- despite the defeat in a more socially-conservative state.
"It doesn't discourage me or change my approach in battling the plight of abortion," said Annie Bukacek, a Kalispell doctor. "I am confident Montana voters will embrace it."
The White House called the Mississippi vote a victory for women and families.
"The president believes that extreme amendments like this would do real damage to a woman's constitutional right to make her own health care decisions, including some very personal decisions on contraception and family planning," President Barack Obama's spokesman Jay Carney said in a statement.
Associated Press writers Andy Brownfield in Columbus, Ohio, Jeff Barnard in Grants Pass, Ore., and Matt Gouras in Helena, Mont., Bill Kaczor in Tallahassee, Fla., contributed to this report.