10 Years After Mississippians Rejected ‘Personhood,’ New ‘Life at ‘Conception’ Efforts Underway | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

10 Years After Mississippians Rejected ‘Personhood,’ New ‘Life at ‘Conception’ Efforts Underway

A decade after a majority of Mississippians voted against the Personhood Amendment, abortion rights organizers and activists continue fighting efforts to ban access to the procedure in the Magnolia State. Activists seen here clashed with a group of street preachers when they held a protest in Jackson to show support for abortion rights on Oct. 3, 2021. Photo by Ashton Pittman

A decade after a majority of Mississippians voted against the Personhood Amendment, abortion rights organizers and activists continue fighting efforts to ban access to the procedure in the Magnolia State. Activists seen here clashed with a group of street preachers when they held a protest in Jackson to show support for abortion rights on Oct. 3, 2021. Photo by Ashton Pittman

“The evil dark side in this world is taking hold,” then-Mississippi gubernatorial candidate Phil Bryant declared grimly during a rally in Tupelo on the eve of Mississippi’s 2011 elections.

If Mississippians rejected the Personhood Amendment at the polls the next day, he warned, then “Satan wins.” Hours later, on Nov. 8, 2011, voters rejected the Personhood Amendment while also electing Phil Bryant as the state’s next governor.

When Magnolia State state residents rejected the constitutional amendment ten years ago this week by a 58%-to-42% vote, they defied national expectations. The Personhood Amendment, also known as Amendment 26, would have enshrined a definition of the word “person” in the state constitution that would have included even fertilized human eggs, theoretically banning all abortions.

A decade after Mississippi rejected the opportunity to adopt the most anti-abortion law in the nation, though, a national anti-abortion group is working with a top Republican U.S. senator to push a national version of the Personhood amendment. In a letter U.S. Sen. Rand Paul sent to conservative voters nationwide in October, the Kentucky Republican explained that “the pro-life movement” no longer needs to feel “limited to protecting a life here and there” or “passing some limited law to slightly control abortion in the more outrageous cases.”

“Now the time to grovel before the Supreme Court is over,” Paul wrote in the letter in coordination with the Springfield, Va.,-based National Pro-Life Alliance. The letters include petitions addressed to each of the recipients’ representatives in Congress, asking them to support the “Life at Conception Act.” Like Mississippi’s failed Personhood Amendment, the bill would declare even fertilized eggs as “persons.”

“A Life at Conception Act declares unborn children ‘persons’ as defined by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, entitled to legal protection,” Paul’s letter says.

Such legislation has no chance of passing under the current Democratic-led Congress, but Paul and other Republicans are hoping to take back control after the 2022 midterm elections.

Anti-abortion activists and lawmakers nationwide believe they are in a stronger position than ever after former President Donald Trump’s appointments made the U.S. Supreme Court more conservative than it was before his arrival in the White House. Next month, the justices will hear Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a Mississippi case challenging the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling.

‘Hell No Against Personhood’

Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch is asking the nation’s high court to overturn that precedent, which guaranteed women the right to obtain an abortion before fetal viability.

“Ten years ago, the Personhood Amendment was about closing down the lone clinic in Mississippi. Fast forward to today, this is about overturning Roe v. Wade, which is a hell of a lot more of an impact than just closing down one clinic,” sHERO Mississippi founder Michelle Colon said in a response to a question from the Mississippi Free Press during a discussion with the Mississippi Abortion Access Coalition on Nov. 9.

“Then, it was about giving personhood to a fertilized egg. To me, now, it’s about stripping me and pregnant people of our personhood. … I look at this as an attack on my personhood, my existing personhood, in Mississippi.”

Valencia Robinson, the executive director of Mississippi in Action, suggested that Mississippi leaders purposefully ignore the messages voters send when they vote on issues like the Personhood Amendment.

“Mississippians spoke and voted,” Robinson said, referring to the 2011 vote against the Personhood Amendment. “People feel their rights and voices are not being heard. If we voted for this, why are we constantly talking about it again? So they feel like their voices are not being heard. Why should I continue to vote when they feel like government is going to continue doing what they want anyway?”

In May, the Mississippi Supreme Court struck down a medical marijuana law voters supported in the 2020 election. The current governor, Tate Reeves is publicly opposing legislators’ efforts to enact a similar but more conservative law because he wants significantly more strict limits on medical marijuana that what voters adopted. The upending of that initiative, which nearly 70% of Mississippians supported, has increased feelings among many voters that state leaders do not respect their wishes.

Cassandra Welchlin, the lead organizer and co-convener of the Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable, said during the Nov. 9 discussion that the current abortion battles are “definitely bigger than just that.”

“It’s about the criminalization of our communities,” she said. “It’s also about voter suppression. And so we can’t look at this in a silo. … These are issues we’ve been dealing with since the founding of our country. These are just tactics renamed and rebranded.”

‘A Slap In The Face’

The Mississippi Personhood Amendment’s landslide loss at the ballot box did not deter the state’s bipartisan slate of anti-abortion lawmakers from continuing in their efforts to end abortion. On the same night voters rejected the Personhood Amendment in November 2011, they also elected a Republican majority to serve in the Mississippi House for the first time in a century and approved a voter-identification effort, which then-Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann led.

Republican lawmakers, with the help of a dwindling group of Democrats, spent much of their first decade as the Legislature’s dominant party passing legislation aimed at shutting down the state’s only abortion clinic or limiting abortion. That included the contested 2018 law banning abortions after 15-weeks gestation that is the subject of the Dobbs case at the U.S. Supreme Court.

“It’s a slap in the face. It’s very disrespectful to the voters, to the people of Mississippi” that lawmakers continued to push anti-abortion legislation after 2011, Colon said on Nov. 9. “Because we battled this 10 years ago. … 59% of Mississippians did not just vote no, but voted hell no against Personhood.”

In 2009, Personhood USA Co-Founder Cal Zastrow and his family moved to Mississippi to work on launching the Personhood Amendment campaign. He had volunteered on a Personhood Amendment effort that failed in Colorado in 2008, but believed the Magnolia State would be different.

“Compared to other states, Mississippi is very significant beceause the majority of Mississippians are already pro-life,” he told this reporter in an October 2010 interview for the University of Southern Mississippi’s student newspaper, the Student Printz. “… The majority of all groups we encountered in Mississippi are pro-life.”

If they won, he predicted, it would “set up a legal challenge to Roe v. Wade.” At the time, five of the U.S. Supreme Court justices had a record of supporting the Roe v. Wade precedent. After Trump’s changes, just three of the nine have such a record. Trump’s last appointee, Amy Coney Barrett, signed a petition in support of a personhood-style effort in 2006.

“So here we are again, and I feel that the reason why we’re here is because anti-abortion lawmakers feel very confident because the federal judiciary has been packed with anti-abortion judges who will sit on these benches for lifetime appointments, and at the Supreme Court level there is an anti-(Roe) majority, so it’s the perfect storm with the election of Donald Trump in 2016,” Michelle Colon said on Nov. 9.

“He made promises that he definitely delivered on.”

‘The Gates of Hell Will Open Up’

By the end of 2010, Zastrow and other anti-abortion organizers had gathered more than 130,000 verified signatures from Mississippi voters—enough to get the Personhood Amendment on the ballot for the next year’s state elections.

Like the out-of-state Personhood USA leader and much of the national media in the lead-up to the vote on Amendment 26, Bryant, who was the lieutenant governor and president of the Mississippi Senate at the time, predicted that Mississippi’s conservative electorate would easily pass it.

At a rally with anti-abortion organizers on the steps of the Mississippi Capitol on Jan. 5, 2011, Bryant announced that he had just received the petition to put the issue on the ballot and then read it in the chamber.

“I knew that it had begun. Now the gates of hell will open up. Be prepared,” Bryant said, drawing shouts of, “Amen” from the largely white crowd.

“I know a little something about negative campaigning, too, and you’re gonna hear all sorts of things raining down on us. We must gird our loins for that. … In difficult times, the Lord is closer to us. We are fighting for something much higher than our own interests. We are fighting for the lives of thousands of Mississippians.”

But still, “come next November, this amendment will pass,” Bryant predicted while comparing the effort to the fight against slavery and segregation.

Republicans were not the only ones embracing the Personhood Amendment and expecting it to pass that year, however. Bryant’s Democratic opponent in the 2011 campaign for governor, Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree, publicly supported it. During a debate with Bryant at the Mississippi College School of Law that fall, DuPree, who was the first Black nominee for governor in the state’s history, said he believed that “life begins at conception.”

The Democratic candidate said he had concerns about the fact that the amendment did not include exceptions for rape, incest or the “life of the mother,” and that it might potentially outlaw some common forms of birth control. Still, he said, he planned to vote for it. Several news outlets at the time reported that he had privately told abortion-rights advocates that it would “destroy (him) politically” to come out against Amendment 26.

While many state politicians and lawmakers took for granted that the Personhood Amendment would succeed, Mississippi abortion-rights advocates organized a statewide effort to fight the Personhood Amendment, which an ethnically and politically diverse group of mothers, calling themselves the “Grassroots Mamas,” led. The top organization leading the effort did not try to persuade Mississippians with standard reproductive-rights language about “the right to choose,” though. Instead, the group, called Mississippians For Healthy Families, focused on crafting a message that appealed to Mississippians’ more conservative sentiments while educating them about the amendment’s potential ramifications.

“This is big government getting between you and your doctor,” volunteers at the organization’s Hattiesburg office told voters during hundreds of phone calls each day, a process which this reporter observed at the time. The approach successfully convinced even many anti-abortion voters to oppose the Personhood Amendment.

By bestowing “personhood” upon fertilized eggs even before they implant and become a pregnancy, the opponents argued, the Personhood Amendment would not only necessitate a ban on all abortions at any stage and for any reason, but also some forms of birth control and even in-vitro fertilization.

“The thing I always found academically interesting and the personally most frustrating was the national media’s lack of understanding of the nuance of Mississippians and the expectation that this would pass with flying colors, rather than understanding that Mississippians have complex feelings and relationships to abortions just as folks do in other places,” Felicia Brown-Williams, who was the outreach director for Mississippians For Healthy Families in 2011, told the Mississippi Free Press during the Nov. 9 Mississippi Abortion Access Coalition discussion.

“Mississippians are not more of a monolith than anyone else, and that bears repeating.”

‘God Does Not Lose’

In an interview with this reporter during the Personhood campaign, Zastrow, the Personhood USA co-founder, said that the Personhood Amendment would apply “the statute that criminalizes murder … to the pre-born as well.” It would be up to Mississippi lawmakers, he said, to clarify in state law that a case involving a pregnant person’s life or health is “a tragedy, not a crime.” He did confirm that part of the goal was to eliminate exceptions for rape or incest.

“The easier ones are rape and incest,” Zastrow said. “First of all, abortions in those cases murder an innocent growing human being who is just as human as I or anyone else. It’s not good justice to execute the victim instead of the criminal,” he said. “Abortion for rape kills the victim—the innocent child. The father’s the criminal.”

By election eve, the Personhood Amendment’s supporters were growing nervous. At a pro-Amendment 26 rally in Tupelo, Bryant compared abortion to Jews “being marched into the oven” in Nazi Germany.

“This is a battle of good and evil of biblical proportions. Let’s just make it plain,” the then-future governor said on Nov. 7, 2011. “The evil side, the dark side of the forces that Satan and those that would love to continue to kill children while still in the womb, are out there using every effort that they can, anything at their disposal. In these times, if you talk too much about the fact that evil does exist, people will think, ‘Something is wrong with him.’

“What times are we living in when it is politically incorrect to say Satan has a hand in this? And you’ve got to understand, we’ve got to fight against the gates of hell to prevail here. … And they’re saying, what we want you to be able to do is to continue to extinguish innocent life. You see, if we could do that, Satan wins.”

The next night in Hattiesburg, the Mississippians For Healthy Families celebrated over kraft beer at the Keg and Barrel, a local pub, as they watched their efforts pay off. The Personhood Amendment was dead. Several miles up the road at the Lake Terrace Convention Center, DuPree greeted a deflated crowd as the Democratic candidate took the stage.

“God does not lose,” DuPree said.

But Bryant had won the election in a 61%-to-39% rout.

“Mississippians are the greatest people in the nation,” the Democratic mayor continued as he conceded the election. “They deserve better than what they get.”

This story originally appeared in the Mississippi Free Press. The Mississippi Free Press is a statewide nonprofit news outlet that provides most of its stories free to other media outlets to republish. Write [email protected] for information.

Support our reporting -- Follow the MFP.