Mississippi Women Win!

Voters scuttled an anti-abortion amendment that would have defined life from conception. Michelle Goldberg on the huge victory for women’s rights—and how the right will fight back.

11.09.11 6:42 PM ET

If a personhood amendment can’t win in Mississippi, it can’t win anywhere.

That’s why last night’s decisive defeat of a state ballot initiative defining a fertilized egg as a legal person is so important. Both gubernatorial candidates, Democrat Johnny Dupree and Republican Phil Bryant, supported Mississippi’s Amendment 26. Indeed, Bryant, who won election last night, was the co-chair of the Yes on 26 campaign, and proclaimed that “Satan wins” if the amendment didn’t pass. And yet 58 percent percent of voters in one of the country’s reddest states ultimately voted against it.

It was the latest bit of evidence that the American right has overestimated public support for its agenda. Until now, most attacks on reproductive rights have been aimed at the margins, eroding Roe v. Wade bit by bit. They’ve affected minors, or poor women, or women needing late-term abortions in situations that most people imagine they’ll never be in. Amendment 26 was different. It would have interfered with the health care of middle-class women and crime victims, and even the most conservative voters in the country weren’t willing to do that.

This doesn’t mean that the personhood movement is dead. “We know we can’t change the culture with one election,” says Jennifer Mason, communications director of Personhood USA (and wife of the group’s founder Keith Mason). “However many elections it takes, we’ll continue to do it until we pass it.” She insists that Tuesday’s defeat won’t slow plans to get personhood amendments on 2012 ballots in Florida, Montana, and other states.

Her explanation for the loss is simple. “What went wrong is that Planned Parenthood lied to the people of Mississippi,” she says. “They continually said that the amendment would outlaw in vitro fertilization and contraception.”

If that’s a lie, then it’s one that Yes on 26 has itself repeated. According to a document on the campaign’s website, “Most birth control pills would not be illegal if the amendment were to pass.” This makes it pretty clear that some, particularly those that work by preventing implantation of a fertilized egg, would be. So would the IUD, which can work the same way.

The same document explains, “If the amendment passes, human experimentation on embryos will end along with the practice of freezing embryos. IVF labs will limit the number of egg(s) fertilized to the number of embryos they are willing to transfer in a single cycle.” That would have radically curtailed the practice of IVF in Mississippi, making it both less effective and more dangerous. Right now, doctors always try to fertilize more eggs than they plan to implant, because they never know how many will turn out to be viable. The personhood amendment would have forced them to either drastically lower their chances of success or risk implanting too many embryos at once, potentially causing hazardous multiple pregnancies. It would also mean that if an IVF cycle failed, as most do, women would have to start the expensive and physically onerous process of egg retrieval all over again, since they couldn’t preserve embryos from previous attempts.

In other words, what opponents did was to tell the truth about 26. They also publicized the undisputed fact that the amendment offered no exemptions for rape victims. One of the most visible opponents was Cristen Hemmins, who had been kidnapped, raped, and shot by two men when she was in college. The day before the election, she publicly confronted Bryant at a pro-26 rally, asking, “Why can't you men have any sympathy for women like me?”

He wasn't swayed, answering, “[T]he child has some rights, too, even in that condition." But Mississippi voters were. They may pay lip service to the idea that a fertilized egg is a human being whose rights trump those of women, but they’re not willing to carry it to its clear, cruel conclusions.