Ballot Initiatives are the process by which the general population of a state can vote on a change to law. In Mississippi, the initiative process was first adopted in 1912, but was shot down by the state’s Supreme Court on a technicality. But in 1992, state legislators re-approved the measure with 70% of the senate supporting it. The state’s process is an “indirect initiative,” meaning that proposals are approved by the legislature before they are presented to the voters.
This year on November 2nd, we will have the opportunity to vote on three ballot initiatives: Eminent Domain, Definition of Personhood, and Voter ID. Last month, we discussed Imminent Domain. In this second part of this three-part series, the issue of Personhood is the topic.
Ballot Initiative #26 is called “Personhood Defined.” It proposes to define the meaning of “person” in Article III of Mississippi’s constitution as “every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the equivalent thereof.” Much controversy arises from this initiative, and other states are considering similar changes to their constitution.
Lt. Governor Phil Bryant led the effort last year to qualify the personhood amendment. It was added to the ballot through a petition written by Paul Riley Jr. of Pontotoc. Riley is a member of the Mississippi Constitution Party, whose mission is, “to restore American government to its Constitutional limits.” The party’s platform includes “sanctity of life” principles that derive from the US Constitution’s preamble which declares that it is government’s obligation to protect the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They believe that the Constitution prohibits the taking of life, except through the process of law and the courts, as in the case of sentencing a criminal to execution by the state. In order to be added to the ballot, the petition required 89,285 signatures. Mississippi’s Secretary of State certified 106,325 signatures.
Opponents are concerned that the proposed bill would limit the rights of women to terminate their pregnancies, even in extreme cases, such as rape or incest. Other questions of concern include: Would it cause the government to interfere with the medical decisions of women? Would the amendment restrict family planning services, such as the use of abortifacients like RU486, or the morning after pill? Would the state prohibit the use of some birth control pills that cause the uterus to become hostile to implantation of a fertilized egg? What about fertility treatments which often produce more fertilized eggs than the mother can gestate, so some are destroyed? Would it limit embryonic stem cell research by prohibiting the use of aborted fetuses for medical research without the consent of the parents?
If the amendment is passed, a fetus will have the same rights as any other human being already born. One could argue that the fetus has a right to a legal guardian if a mother chooses to terminate her pregnancy. Mississippi, and many other states, already has laws that allow women to be arrested for child abuse if she abuses drugs during her pregnancy. There are also laws that allow a person to be charged with murder if a fetus dies subsequent to an assault on the mother. Technically, the amendment is just completing the set of rights already held by the unborn. It is a U. S. constitutional principle already that the Bill of Rights cannot be applied in part, but must be protected as a whole. For proponents of this amendment, it means that Ballot Initiative #26 simply completes the guarantee of all rights to all persons.
Social activists from all over the country have come to Mississippi to influence the minds of voters. Some activists are using graphic images of aborted fetuses to make their point, and this has made many pro-life and pro-choice voters very uncomfortable, claiming their tactics are hateful toward people who support abortion rights as oppose to being compassionate toward human life even while still in the womb.
Another factor to consider is the controversial issue of corporate personhood. If personhood is defined as human life beginning at conception, this could change laws that define corporations as “persons” since they do not have their origins in the womb. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court declared in Citizens United vs. F.E.C. that corporations are protected under the Bill of Rights just as individual human beings are. But some Justices said that corporate personhood should not be construed as giving corporations equal rights as “organic” persons. For instance, can corporations have the right to bear arms? Is the entire corporation considered “one person” who can vote in elections? If a corporation is charged with committing crimes, will all its employees be tried, and would the entire corporation’s staff go to jail if convicted? Can corporations freely practice a specific religion?
Needless to say, this ballot initiative will require all Mississippi voters to search their hearts and carefully reason their decision to vote yes or no this November. You can learn more about the Personhood bill by visiting the MS Secretary of State‘s website at http://www.sos.ms.gov/elections2_initiative0026.aspx. For arguments in support of Initiative #26, visit Personhood Mississippi online at http://www.personhoodmississippi.com.
Our nation’s first president justly said, “The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government. But the Constitution… till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all.” This November’s election is your chance to be a part of this essential democratic process. See you at the polls!