Initiative 26 goes before Mississippi voters on November 8th, offering them the chance to codify the most extreme restrictions on reproductive rights anywhere in the state constitution. By conveying the rights of personhood on a fertilized egg, it opens the door to banning, and potentially even pressing criminal charges for the use of, universally accepted birth control practices.
Kate Sheppard is the author of Then They Came for Your Birth Control, published in Mother Jones Magazine, and she joins us to provide some background on this initiative – as well as analysis on the far-reaching possible effects of its passage
RUSH TRANSCRIPT: Kate Sheppard, Mother Jones Magazine[REV. DR. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST]: Earlier this year, Mother Jones Magazine Associate Editor Nick Baumann was with us here on State of Belief Radio. We were examining various state-level initiatives with a common purpose: to restrict women’s reproductive rights above and beyond the federal limitations currently associated with Roe v Wade.
Now, since that time, efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, to demonize right-to-choose advocates, and to further expand restrictions on abortion have continued to charge ahead – and right now, ground zero is Mississippi. That’s because right now, Mississippi conservatives are going way beyond eroding reproductive rights, and attempting to redefine the very notion of a “human being.”
The Mississippi “personhood” amendment, Initiative 26, goes before voters on November 8th. Joining me now to consider the implications of that amendment is Kate Sheppard, who’s recently written on the amendment for the magazine. Kate, welcome to State of Belief Radio![KATE SHEPPARD, GUEST]: Thanks for having me. [WG]: I would like for you to summarize, if you will, the substance of Mississippi’s Initiative 26, and why it’s of so much concern both within that state and for some of us. And let me say, I would like you to summarize it so people believe you. When I tell them what’s in this, most people say: “Oh, you’re kidding.” Tell us what it is. [KS]: The Personhood Amendment that they’ve offered here in Mississippi is by far the most extreme anti-abortion piece of legislation that’s been considered in the country this year – and that’s among a number of pretty extreme proposals out there. This basically would redefine a person as beginning at conception – and this is actually even more strict. The typical understanding of when someone becomes pregnant is when a fertilized egg implants in a woman’s uterus, and that is a pregnancy at that point in time; but this actually goes beyond that. This says when the sperm meets the egg it’s a person; and obviously it’s illegal to kill a person. So this would then therefore give this, united sperm and egg, same rights as all of the rest of us.
This has pretty broad implications. It’s not just saying that you can’t have an abortion, ever; it also would outlaw a number of forms of birth control: IUDs – intrauterine devices, it would make them illegal; it would definitely make the morning-after pill illegal; and it would most likely also make any form of regular, traditional birth control illegal as well.[WG]: Kate, I’m not trying to be flip here when I ask this question, but does this literally mean that, legally, a person in Mississippi would be unlike any person in any other state from this perspective? [KS]: It would certainly redefine what we think of as, people, you’re absolutely right. And it’s not like this in any other state. I mean, there have been pretty strict anti-abortion laws considered around the country that, you know, either choose to define a person as when you can hear a heartbeat, or choose to define a person as, you know, a certain number of weeks into the pregnancy – but this is by far the most extreme version of that kind of law. [WG]: Do you see it as the first step in trying to go to other states with the same kind of amendment? [KS]: Absolutely. They are also, at this point in time, trying to get it on the ballot in Florida for next year. Personhood USA, which is behind this, definitely has it on their radar to get this spread around the country. [WG]: Are they honest about this? I mean, do they really think this far-reaching amendment would work in practice, or are they just charging ahead with, really, no regard to real-life implications? [KS]: It’s hard to read their thoughts, obviously. There are a couple of things going on here. I think one potential outcome that they would like to see, I think, is just forcing people to talk about this issue around the country. We’ve seen it play out in the presidential candidates, so they’re trying to encourage the GOP presidential candidates to weigh in on this. They’re basically, sort of, just pushing this, sort of, idea of humanity starting at conception into the mainstream conversation, so that’s obviously one of their goals. They also, I think, were hoping that people either wouldn’t notice that this would also affect birth control so severely, or thought that they could get away with it, you know. I mean, initially their public comments said that this wouldn’t affect birth control at all, but now this week they have admitted that yes, it’s right, that this would probably make a number of forms of birth control illegal as well; and so I think they were sort of banking on people not noticing that. But that actually hasn’t been the case, and that’s really led to a lot of people becoming more concerned about it. I mean, even Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour has said that he has concerns about this, the amendment as it’s written. [WG]: Will he veto it? [KS]: I don’t think he’s gone that far yet but he has at least expressed concerns about the way it is, it has been created. [WG]: I guess you would expect that the desire would be, fairly quickly, to get a good test case – to run up the judicial system and see what’s said about it? [KS]: Yeah, that’s absolutely the case. I mean, any time a bill like this is… Well, this isn’t a bill, this is a public referendum so, that’s even different than, you know, what happens when it’s passed as a law; it’s a constitutional amendment so it’s even harder to fight. But obviously, everything will be litigated, and that’s the case with a lot of this kind of really extreme bills around the country is that they, sort of, are hoping to push the issue into the courts and try test cases, and see where they can go with it. [WG]: I’ve seen some articles indicating that there are some organizations of religious leaders that are, as you would suspect, very much behind this referendum and encouraging people to vote for it. How much opposition is there within the state? [KS]: It seems that a lot of people in the state didn’t think it would go as far, and actually have such a chance of passing. And then a lot of attention on it just started lately. There are a number of religious groups that are supportive of it, but I think there are an increasing number of people who identify themselves as religious that are raising questions about, you know, what this bill actually does. I mean, it’s one thing to, sort of, speak generally about this principle of whether life begins at conception, but it’s quite a different thing to start legislating it, writing it into the state law and I think that’s what really has pushed it into, you know, in front of the minds of a lot of the people in the state. [WG]: You’ve mentioned some implications if this became a part of the Mississippi constitution, implications for birth control and the use of various birth control techniques. Does it go even beyond that? Do they… I guess what I’m getting at is, if the rights of the mother and the rights of the embryo are equal, who gets to define what the rights of the embryo are? [KS]: Well, you’re absolutely right. I mean, this actually really changes the question on a lot of things: I mean, if you think about an ectopic pregnancy which is absolutely a danger to a woman’s health and, you know, this would basically mean the doctors couldn’t perform really necessary abortions to save the life of the mother in that case. It also, I mean, I’ve seen doctors raising concerns about this because it really might crate, sort of, new concerns or conflicts about what they might be able to do to help a woman who – even if they’re not aborting the fetus – but even what they’re able to do in terms of intervention. So if a woman is pregnant and finds out she has cancer and needs chemotherapy, what does that mean? There are a lot of really, sort of, specific medical conditions out there that this could create a problem for doctors to intervene on. And it also… Another thing that people have pointed out is that it might make in vitro fertilization illegal as well, because then you have these fertilized eggs that are people in test tubes, and then that would absolutely be something that would be illegal. [WG]: You know, I don’t know about you, I am amazed that with this much at stake, that the mainstream media have not been more attentive and I would have to say alarming on this development. Do you have an explanation for that? We’re both in the media, but why has it not attracted more attention? [KS]: It definitely took a while, there was a New York Times story about it last week sometime, but you know that was last week. It had already gained quite a bit of traction at that point in time. I mean, in general, we look at reproductive rights around the country, there have been so many bills considered this year, and so many laws passed. I think there is sort of this attitude that, “Oh, well, it’s happening in this one state, it’s not that big of a deal.” Obviously, it’s a big deal for the women who live in that state; but it’s also important to, sort of, pay attention to see what these national trends are. Because if they get this passed in Mississippi, they absolutely will try to do it in other states and, sort of, lay the groundwork for other campaigns. And so, you’re absolutely right, it should be getting more news attention; and I think it probably will here in the next few days before the election, because people are realizing, really, how extreme this measure is. [WG]: Kate, is this, in Mississippi, is this a bipartisan effort, or are the Republicans more involved than the Democrats, or how does that go? [KS]: Well, I mean, sort of, our northeastern ideas about Republicans and Democrats are not… don’t necessarily translate to Mississippi in the same way. It’s been led by conservative lawmakers in this state but, I mean, really, it was led by conservative, sort of, issue-based groups. They’ve started it, Republicans latched on to it earlier, but you’ve seen even Democratic legislators in the state who have been either reluctant to weigh in, or they’ve said that they support it just because they’re nervous about rocking the boat to much with the electorate; so you have seen support from Democratic members of their state legislature as well. [WG]: If you had two minutes on the radio, state radio in Mississippi, what would you say to Mississippians about what they may be missing in this? [KS]: Well, I think the important thing to highlight is that this is really an extreme redefinition of what it means to be a person. I think most women… So many women use birth control, and I think they would be really alarmed to find out that the pill, the morning-after pill and IUD, things that they use – because they realize the need that they have in their own life for that – would be at stake; and I think they would have serious questions about whether that’s the role the state should play in telling them what they can and can’t use for birth control. I think that’s much more of an issue that everybody can wrap their brain around even if you have, you know, sort of, varying feelings about what a person is, and when a fetus becomes a person. [WG]: You know, what amazes me about that – and that’s not what we’re here to talk about today – but as a minister myself, I think this is a definition of personhood that goes far beyond the teaching of scripture, even; and it’s amazing to me that in a state that claims to be so captivated by the literal interpretation of scripture – this doesn’t fit. [KS]: Yes, you’re absolutely right. And I think the other thing that’s worth noting, particularly if you are coming from a faith background, is that children who are born in Mississippi have pretty bad outcomes compared to children in other states, you know, poverty levels is very high there, disease rates are high… You know, it’s one thing to care about a fertilized egg, but you should also care about the person that would come of that fertilized egg. And in Mississippi they’ve got pretty poor record on that front. [WG]: Well, you know that we can’t do this without me asking you what’s going to happen. What do you think is going to happen? [KS]: Oh, I’m really bad at guessing outcomes. I have a feeling that it will probably pass but, you know, we’ll see. I think a lot of the, sort of, real meat of what’s happening here has only come out in the last few days, and they’ve really just gotten the supporters to admit to a lot of what it will actually do; and that really could affect public opinion in the state. [WG]: Well, it really bothers me, and I know it bothers you, when a political agenda begins to reshape fundamental ideas of who persons are. That’s carrying the political agenda way too far, in my opinion.
Listeners, you can read Kate Sheppard’s piece, and I encourage you to do that. She wrote on Mississippi Initiative 26, the “personhood” amendment. You can find it in Mother Jones Magazine. The vote is November 8th – if you’ve got family in Mississippi, if you’re listening to this program in Mississippi, think about what’s going on here.
And Kate, thank you for giving us content on which to think as we turn our eyes there. We appreciate your being on State of Belief Radio.[KS]: Thanks for having me.