Personhood initiative pushed in more states despite loss in Mississippi

Voters rejected a constitutional change that would have provided legal rights to all fertilized eggs.

By Alicia Gallegos — Posted Nov. 21, 2011

Print  |   Email  |   Respond  |   Reprints  |   Like Facebook  |   Share Twitter  |   Tweet Linkedin

Despite being defeated by voters in Mississippi, an initiative that would define a fertilized egg as a person with full legal rights soon may reach more state ballots if supporters have their way.

The measure -- defeated 58% to 42% by Mississippi voters on Nov. 8 -- would have changed the state's constitution to define personhood as "every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof." Opponents of the effort said it essentially would have outlawed abortion and a range of other legal medical procedures, criminalizing both women and the doctors who treated them.

Personhood USA, the Colorado-based anti-abortion group that led the Mississippi initiative, is working to get the measure on 2012 ballots in California, Florida, Montana, Nevada, Ohio and Oregon, among other states. Similar voter initiatives in Colorado failed in 2008 and 2010.

Personhood USA announced Nov. 10 that it had collected 1 million signatures from across the country in support of its personhood initiative.

"Win or lose, Personhood USA and millions of pro-life Americans are prepared to dedicate our lives to this cause," said Keith Mason, the group's president. "We will lose some battles, but the injustice of abortion cannot last in a society upholding our highest ideals."

Meanwhile, Alabama State Sen. Phil Williams, a Republican, is pushing legislation for a similar constitutional amendment. In June, Williams pre-filed a personhood bill to be considered during the 2012 session, according to the Senate's website. The bill seeks to define persons "to include all humans from moment of fertilization and implantation into the womb." Earlier versions of the Alabama bill failed to advance.

A bill was introduced in the U.S. House in January with similar language to the Mississippi personhood amendment, although the bill is still in committee.

Potential impact on doctors

If approved in at least one of the states, doctors and others say the constitutional language would have far-reaching implications on the practice of medicine. The change potentially would impact doctors' treatment of serious pregnancy conditions, medical procedures that could destroy fertilized eggs, and in-vitro fertilization treatments in which unused eggs often are discarded. Women receiving the morning-after pill and other forms of contraception that prevent implantation also could be affected.

The personhood language is "very broad and vague, and physicians would have a very hard time complying with it," said family physician Debra Stulberg, MD, an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Chicago Medical Center. The Mississippi initiative "really created enormous ambiguity for doctors and for patients. My sense is that [the initiative's] sponsor was trying to reduce the number of abortions, but really this law went far beyond that."

If enacted, the initiative would force doctors to weigh legal concerns with best care practices, Dr. Stulberg said, particularly in circumstances where patients are experiencing potentially life-threatening conditions. These could include severe preeclampsia or ectopic pregnancies.

"In those situations, I don't think we want doctors asking themselves, 'Should I call my lawyer first and ask him if I'm going to be charged with murder?' " she said.

The Mississippi initiative caused concern among doctors because of its intrusive nature, said James N. Martin Jr., MD, president of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Although he is relieved the effort was defeated, Dr. Martin said the battle against the personhood campaign will continue.

"I think it is very feasible there will be another effort to put it on ballots" in other states, he said. "We don't think it's going to go away."

The American Assn. of Pro Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists said it was disappointed with the effort's defeat in Mississippi. The decision does not "negate the fact that this is a human being from the time of fertilization," said Joseph DeCook, MD, the association's executive director.

"Anyone who denies that is just denying reality. The question is at what point is this person entitled to rights under the law," he said.

However, Dr. DeCook says he doubts the proposed constitutional change will have more success in other states.

"Mississippi is probably one of the strongest pro-life states" in the country, he said. "If it was soundly defeated there, it certainly doesn't look good for other initiatives. The Mississippi results probably portend this is not the kind of initiative that is going to be passed by voters."

If the idea does spread to other states, Dr. Stulberg said, she hopes the medical community again will team up to educate residents of its broad consequences.

"I think physicians seemed to really come together in Mississippi against this, and if physicians in other states recognize how harmful it will be, hopefully they'll speak up," she said.

Back to top



Read story

Confronting bias against obese patients

Medical educators are starting to raise awareness about how weight-related stigma can impair patient-physician communication and the treatment of obesity. Read story

Read story


American Medical News is ceasing publication after 55 years of serving physicians by keeping them informed of their rapidly changing profession. Read story

Read story

Policing medical practice employees after work

Doctors can try to regulate staff actions outside the office, but they must watch what they try to stamp out and how they do it. Read story

Read story

Diabetes prevention: Set on a course for lifestyle change

The YMCA's evidence-based program is helping prediabetic patients eat right, get active and lose weight. Read story

Read story

Medicaid's muddled preventive care picture

The health system reform law promises no-cost coverage of a lengthy list of screenings and other prevention services, but some beneficiaries still might miss out. Read story

Read story

How to get tax breaks for your medical practice

Federal, state and local governments offer doctors incentives because practices are recognized as economic engines. But physicians must know how and where to find them. Read story

Read story

Advance pay ACOs: A down payment on Medicare's future

Accountable care organizations that pay doctors up-front bring practice improvements, but it's unclear yet if program actuaries will see a return on investment. Read story

Read story

Physician liability: Your team, your legal risk

When health care team members drop the ball, it's often doctors who end up in court. How can physicians improve such care and avoid risks? Read story

  • Stay informed
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • RSS
  • LinkedIn