Page URL:

The far-stretching reach of Mississippi's personhood amendment

21 November 2011
Appeared in BioNews 634
On 8 November the Mississippi electorate voted against an amendment to the Bill of Rights in their state Constitution which would have redefined life as beginning at the moment of fertilisation – the so-called 'personhood amendment' (Proposition 26).

In short, Proposition 26 sought the redefinition of person so as 'to include every human being from the moment of fertilisation, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof' (1).

While many media sources have labelled the proposal the 'anti-abortion' amendment, the consequence of redefining personhood from the moment of fertilisation stretched far beyond the arena of abortion, and well into the area of reproductive health and assisted reproduction.

Several forms of birth control have mechanisms of action which inhibit the implantation of a fertilised egg onto the lining of the uterus, such as the intrauterine device, the morning after pill, the progesterone-only 'mini-pill' and even traditional contraceptive pills (where one mechanism of action is the alteration of the uterus lining and inhibition of implantation of any fertilised egg following breakthrough ovulation).

The personhood amendment would have outlawed any of these contraceptive methods within the state of Mississippi. This would have happened within a state which currently has the highest number of teen pregnancies and unplanned pregnancies in the country (2). Moreover, there was no indication that appropriate concurrent public health programmes or advocacy work would have been introduced to address the obvious ramifications of the amendment.

Furthermore, IVF techniques are far from efficient: not only do very few embryos implant, the procedure most often produces more than one fertilised egg. Thus, the amendment would have restricted the freezing of fertilised eggs for future use and the destruction of any unused fertilised eggs.

The consequences of this in terms of limiting stem cell and reproductive research are also clear: if a fertilised egg is granted the status and protection of personhood, then there can be no research carried out on the egg or its constituent parts.

Several commentators (3) have raised the interesting question of what would happen in the situation of natural miscarriages (an all too common and distressing aspect of pregnancy) – would the women in those circumstances have to undergo investigation to ensure that there was no foul play at work following the loss of life?

As the amendment was voted down by a majority of 58 percent to 42 percent, one may ask why the story is still of interest. The reason is two-fold: (i) some believe that had the vote passed, it would have reopened a national-level discussion on abortion, and (ii) the proposed amendment to the Mississippi law is just one such proposal, support for the same amendment is currently being sought in at least 14 other US states.

While proponents of the amendment argued that it would not affect any medical care outside of abortion, the vague wording of the amendment (reflected in the division it caused amongst the normally united conservative anti-abortion camp) and basic scientific knowledge of IVF procedures and stem cell research would clearly suggest otherwise.

At least two national medical organisations produced statements in response to Proposition 26. The American Society for Reproduction Medicine spoke in support of the outcome, praising the people of Mississippi for not accepting 'this dangerous measure that would have endangered access to reproductive health care' (4).

'[Proposition 26] has wide-reaching implications that will impact access to women's health, including treatment for cancer, infertility treatment, birth control options, and pregnancy termination', wrote the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in a more lengthy statement. 'This proposal unnecessarily exposes women to serious health risks and significantly undermines the relationship between physicians and our patients' (5).

State-by-state proposals of this nature will act to widen the already disparate access to reproductive health care in the US, as well as severely limiting associated research. While the amendment may not have passed this November in this particular state, it will be interesting to see whether the US Government acts now to open national legislative discussion surrounding the implications of the personhood initiatives and pre-emptively safeguard reproductive health and assisted reproduction technologies and research.

1) Personhood Mississippi (2011) Amendment 26
Personhood Mississippi |  29 November 2021
2) Medical Nuances Drove ‘No’ Vote in Mississippi
New York Times |  14 November 2011
3) The commitment to pre-embryonic personhood
Mississippi Business Journal |  23 September 2011
4) ASRM reacts to Mississippi Personhood Amendment vote
American Society for Reproductive Medicine |  14 November 2011
5) ACOG Statement on Mississippi's 'Personhood Amendment' Proposition 26
American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists |  7 November 2011
20 August 2012 - by Sarah Pritchard 
Views held by Paul Ryan – the man chosen by US presidential hopeful Mitt Romney to be his running mate – that life begins at fertilisation have caused a media furore in North America....
8 May 2012 - by Dr Victoria Burchell 
The Oklahoma Supreme Court has declared void a ballot initiative that would have asked voters to expand the definition of a person in the state constitution to include human embryos and fetuses....
2 April 2012 - by Rosie Beauchamp 
Civil liberty groups in the USA have filed a legal challenge to the 'personhood' ballot initiative in Oklahoma, as a separate measure known as the Personhood Act progresses through the State legislature...
27 February 2012 - by Rosie Beauchamp 
The Republican controlled state Senate of Oklahoma passed the 'Personhood Act' by 34 votes to eight on 15 February. The Act moves to extend the definition of 'person' under State law to include a fetus from the point of conception...
13 February 2012 - by Ruth Retassie 
US Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has called for a commission to investigate the ethical issues around IVF. He also wants a ban on human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research, including research on donated embryos left over from IVF....
14 November 2011 - by Rachel Lloyd 
Voters in the US state of Mississippi have voted against a proposed constitutional amendment that would have defined life as beginning at fertilisation. The proposed amendment would have afforded embryos and fetuses – whether conceived naturally or artificially - similar legal protection as that covering all US citizens but was rejected by over 55 per cent of voters on 8 November...
19 August 2011 - by MacKenna Roberts 
Should human embryonic stem cell research be deemed unethical for its embryo destruction? The US court decision in Sherley v Sebelius on 27 July 2011 to allow federal funding of this research set a global precedent. The meaning of research was divided into two categories: that which directly involves embryo destruction and that which does not...
1 August 2011 - by Dr Morven Shearer 
Last month news broke of an experimental womb transplantation surgery planned for early next year. With it came the possibility of women with an absent or non-functioning uterus carrying a child to term (see Roberts, 2011)....
7 November 2005 - by BioNews 
The Arizona Court of Appeals has ruled that a couple cannot sue for 'wrongful death' over embryos lost or destroyed by a fertility clinic. William and Belinda Jeter sued the Mayo Clinic for wrongful death after it lost or destroyed the five 'pre-embryos' they had created in vitro and cryopreserved...
6 December 2004 - by Dr Kirsty Horsey 
Recent news reports have highlighted the fact that scientists are searching for a way to create human embryonic stem (ES) cells without destroying human embryos. Normally, the derivation of ES cells requires that the embryo they came from be destroyed in the process. Many people have no ethical problem with...
to add a Comment.

By posting a comment you agree to abide by the BioNews terms and conditions

Syndicate this story - click here to enquire about using this story.